Illuminated by Fire

Posted in Blog

Now that most welcomed, cold rains have brought our fire season to an end, it seems constructive to reflect on some of the lessons reinforced by events in the past two months.  Though the fires are dwindling, the human suffering related to them is far from over; this is a time to focus on ways to reduce that suffering, build back better, and take stock of what we might learn and how best to apply it.

Here are three key lessons that we have learned, or been reminded of, by this fire season:

1 – Big Fires on the Westside Are Not a Thing of the Past  – As westside forest owners, we’re well aware that fire has always been part of our landscape and that the historic fire cycle is long and characterized by large, hot, stand replacing fires.   Old, fire scarred trees in and near our forests remind us of this reality regularly.  At the same time, knowing that local fire suppression capacity is high and that large fires such as the Yacolt (500,000 ac. in 1902) and the Tillamook Burns (ca. 250,000 ac. 1933-’51) are far from socially acceptable, until this September many of us, mistakenly, looked on these fires as a thing of the past.  We were wrong.  Given particular combinations of weather and forest conditions, it seems clear that large, damaging fires will always be part of this landscape.  As shown below, the Powerline Fire burned to within a mile of our Mt. Richmond Forest.  How fortunate we are that is started not on our ridge, but the next one north and that it was contained before strong winds blew it up into a large fire.

2 – We Have Choices  –  In these volatile and polarized times, we can choose to act in ways that exacerbate  or reduce these divisions.  It is human nature, as we struggle to make sense of challenges, to make definitive statements about the causes of the fires and damage. Yet watching from our forested hilltop, it is clear that these approaches too often further divide us.  “This is 100% about climate change!”, “This has nothing to do with climate change and everything to do with bad public policy and irresponsible forest management”…… which too often devolves into name calling  – denier, alarmist, extremist..?  Amid the cacophony of proclamations, if one listens carefully, you will hear a different approach being taken – considering and identifying what might be the most important questions related to fire and forests that we need to be asking, understanding and trying to answer.  For example, statements might be exchanged for questions such as: “What can we know about the role that climate change played in these fires?” and “What can we know about the role of forest management in these fires?” and “What are the most important lessons that we might learn and how should they shape our future actions?”.   In our experience, these types of questions, when properly approached, have the power to bring people together and close the gaps tearing apart our communities as powerfully as the strident statements widen them.  Immediate responses to fighting the fires and minimizing their damage show us a second opportunity for healing the divides in our community – allegiance to and solidarity with ones home place.  Story after story show us the power of people working together to address immediate threats regardless of the differences that might divide them.  Going forward, which path will we choose?  Roads leading toward healing or toward greater division?

3 – Complexity Matters – On the one hand, the story of the large fires is simple – dry conditions, existing fires, remarkably strong east winds, downed powerlines…. . On the other hand, the job of better understanding the mix of contributing factors, the lessons to be learned, and the best pathways forward challenge us to acknowledge and embrace complexity and uncertainty.  Past experience suggests that our culture finds it tough to muster the attention and discipline needed to embrace this type of complexity.  Perhaps we each have opportunities to find ways to show how this can be done?

In these tough and perilous times, we acknowledge all that has been lost and the work of recovery and learning that lies ahead.  Green shoots are already springing up from the ashes.

Tillamook Burns – 1933-1951 – Finger points to our Timber Forest and Pacific is at the western edge. The older Lousignont Fire burned our forest leaving lasting clues.