by Kyle Dickman | photographs Jayson Coil
Like most western communities, Bend, Oregon (pop. 87,104), has a fire problem. Pine forests with a long and violent history of burning surround its singletrack trails and downtown breweries. Take 2003’s B&B Complex Fire, which torched 90,769 acres on Bend’s edge and cost $38 million to contain, or the 2014 Two Bulls Fire, which blew through 6,908 acres of forest in a long afternoon and threatened 10,000 homes. “The only reason Two Bulls didn’t burn to downtown is it moved into areas that had been intensively managed and treated, and our firefighters were able to get in there and stop it safely,” says Bob Madden, a chief in Bend’s fire department.
What makes Bend different from most western towns is that in an age of increasingly destructive wildfires, residents have figured out how to mitigate the risk of burning. Fuel breaks, or hazardous fuels reduction projects, are patches of forest thinned with chainsaws, prescribed fires, and tractors. The thinking goes that when a wildfire hits the thinner forests, it will slow and give firefighters a better chance at saving homes. Lately, hazardous fuels reduction has become a buzz term in forestry. It’s seen as one practical solution to the ticking bomb of forest health, climate change, and western migration. Forest Service officials have identified 230 million acres in need of thinning. But through a lack of political will, broken budgets, and a system that rewards fighting rather than preparing for wildfires, less than three million will be treated by 2016’s end.
Reducing fuels around towns is not a new idea. It’s just a controversial one. It took Bend 20 years to start returning its now dense ponderosa stands to their historic norms—with grassy forest floors and trees spaced far enough apart to ride a horse through without breaking a branch. Today, loggers, tractors mulching brush, and firefighters intentionally burning the woods are all common sights around Bend. Madden considers the town’s acceptance of the work a feat. It is, considering less than two percent of Western towns have done any substantial wildfire mitigation work, according to the National Association of State Foresters. “These at-risk communities face a vexing problem: How do we live with worsening wildfires?” says Tania Schoennagel, an ecologist who studies fire at University of Colorado Boulder. The test now is whether firefighters will continue to risk their lives to save unprepared homes, or if the Bend model can be extended to the rest of the country.
Until 100 years ago, routine lightning- or human-ignited fires naturally thinned most Western forests. Then, around 1910, the Forest Service started extinguishing every hot ember. The woods thickened, and the extra fuel created hotter fires. Meanwhile, the West has warmed and dried, and millions of Americans have moved into fire-prone lands. Today, about 140 million people—with $237 billion in property—live in wildfire country. The federal government spends an average of $3 billion fighting fires each year, up from $1 billion two decades ago, and the vast majority of that goes to protecting homes. The Forest Service can’t keep up.
Though the agency, America’s biggest fire department, still manages 193 million acres, it’s effectively bankrupt. In all but three years since 2000, it’s overspent its firefighting allocation, most years by several hundred million dollars. But rather than Congress boldly restructuring the way the agency finances firefighting, the Forest Service must provide this public service by appropriating money intended for its other essential programs. Over the last 15 years, they’ve cut non-fire positions by 39 percent, while doubling the number of firefighters and tripling that program’s expenditures.
More alarming still, funding for preemptive measures like hazardous fuels reduction has shrunk by a quarter since 2005. Compared to the $3 billion the federal government spends fighting fires, the Forest Service gets a scant $360 million for fuels reduction. That means, as time marches on, our forests only grow thicker, fires keep intensifying, and with homes and communities at greater risk, the need to quickly extinguish every spark becomes more pressing.
Imagine our forests—they engulf mountain towns throughout the West, places like Whitefish, Montana, Kings Beach, California, Sun Valley, Idaho. Go off-trail, and dry brush on the forest floor hatch marks shins. Brittle branches shred outerwear. Now drop a match in that tinder. It ignites the parched understory first, then flames race up ladders of brush and younger trees into the forest’s crown where they’re nearly impossible for firefighters to stop. Still, firefighters too often try, putting their own lives in danger. Recall the 19 firefighters who died in vain to save Yarnell, Arizona, in 2013, or the three who perished defending Twisp, Washington, last year.
The same young people who risk their lives fighting fires are also those strong enough to thin overly dense forests before they burn. The job requires chainsaw-wielding workers to prune limbs to head height, fell the more flammable young and dead trees, and stack this cut vegetation into piles they’ll ignite when rain or snow dampens the risk of fire’s escape. It costs between $250 and $1,000 to thin and burn an acre of land. By contrast, the federal government regularly spends $600,000 protecting single homes from wildfires. Plus, the end result resembles a forest that you—and eagles, elk, trees, and voles—would like to inhabit: meadows and evenly spaced trees, maybe a strip of rolling, open singletrack.
Better recreation and a healthier ecosystem are excellent arguments for restoring our woods. Here’s another. Thinner forests give firefighters a greater shot at protecting mountain towns, homes, and people from burning.
Tens of thousands of towns dot the West’s flammable landscapes. After the worst two decades of wildfires in American history, everyone living in those places should know that catastrophic fires are imminent and that firefighters can’t do much to stop the worst of them. The Forest Service is hamstrung: FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps shut down in 1942, and the federal government spends most of the budget on the military. That leaves protecting towns up to regular people. Even that is tricky.
Bend’s dispute over hazardous fuels reduction stemmed from a lack of trust between the Forest Service and environmentalists. After decades of inviting loggers to clearcut public lands, the Forest Service, rightly, had a credibility issue with environmentalists. Organizations like Oregon Wild sought to block all logging on public lands. They carried that fight into the turn of the millennium. By then, says Ed Keith, the Deschutes County Forester, “No logging and aggressive fire suppression led to fires that burned so hot they razed the entire landscape.”
Between 1996 and 2010, environmentalists tried to shutter every hazardous fuels reduction project the Forest Service proposed. In that time, at least 13 fires hit Deschutes County; in each blaze, firefighters took risks to save homes. The situation was untenable. But then, in 2008, a logger-turned-environmentalist, the late Tim Lillebo, engaged the community in a new way. Tired of watching the forest thicken, Lillebo, then working for Oregon Wild, used Glaze Meadow, not far from Bend, to unite all sides. Thin the overgrowth, he preached, and you’ll protect town.
Lillebo and his compatriots joined the Forest Service’s district ranger in an education initiative that involved hundreds of visits to Glaze Meadow. After two years of work, they convinced all parties to support the project. The chainsaws revved, the meadow was thinned, and the lawyers stayed mum. All parties won.
Then something incredible happened: Congress took note. In 2009, it passed the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Act, allocating funds to the Forest Service to see if community-led hazardous fuels reduction programs could help solve the crisis. Deschutes National Forest, adjacent to Bend, was one of 10 areas chosen as a pilot. With a $10.1 million grant, a collective of 40 local groups—loggers, federal and state agencies, environmentalists—developed a plan to thin 257,000 acres over the next decade. Since then, 74 new jobs have been created, laborers thinned 60,000-plus acres, and only three fires have hit the area. And still, no injunctions have been filed.
Decades after the fire chief Madden and his cohorts proposed thinning and prescribed burns as an alternative to letting wildfires rage, it was actually happening on a moderate scale. It takes sustained effort for communities to execute such landscape changes, says the forester, Keith. “We’re a nation that expects things to happen instantaneously. That’s just not how these things come together.”
As powerful as the anti-fuels reduction contingent was in Bend, the shift in attitude made sense. It just took time to negotiate. Many other mountain towns are still trying to figure out how much fuels reduction is right for them. Nederland, Colorado, a town of 1,445 sunk into Colorado’s Arapahoe National Forest near Boulder, is one such place. Many locals there can’t stomach the thought of chainsaws in their forest, but it happened in 2014, when the Forest Service started cutting a 5,000-acre hazardous fuels reduction project just outside town.
Work crews effectively clearcut an area that many locals hiked and mountain biked. As prescribed, the agency felled hundreds of trees and left the slash in piles. The sight—and a belief that her best interests weren’t being represented—prompted 29-year Nederland resident Vivian Long to threaten an injunction against the Forest Service. That was enough for the agency to silence its chainsaws after thinning just 900 acres. “I moved here to live in the forest. I want scenic beauty and wildlife. Not clearcuts that may or may not save my house,” Long says, citing a Forest Service study that suggests thinning doesn’t work.
After a ripping 2010 blaze torched 162 homes in Four Mile Canyon near Nederland, investigators found that the 600 acres of thinned forest inside the fire’s final perimeter “appeared to be ineffective at changing fire behavior.” So why, Long asked, let the feds cut the woods she loves? “Where it gets really confusing is that these projects aren’t guaranteed to stop fires,” says the ecologist Tania Schoennagel. “But if land management agencies want to put their best foot forward in terms of protecting fire-prone communities, they’ll put treatments closer to those communities.”
Tony Cheng, director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute, advocates for more hazardous fuels reduction. He says we should think of fires as we do earthquakes—destructive but inevitable. Bay Area buildings are engineered to survive an earthquake of a certain intensity, he says. Fire-ready communities do the same for flames.
Case in point: Despite a string of the most violent wildfires in central Oregon’s history, Bend’s Deschutes County hasn’t lost a single home since they finished the Glaze Meadow project.
From our High Summer 2016 issue.