It was a searing summer, with wildfire and smoke bringing tremendous loss to our economy and serious worries about our health. Our forests are vulnerable to fire and science predicts hotter, drier summers — so how do we become “safer and more resilient?”
That’s what state Rep. Pam Marsh said to 500 hopeful and determined people who turned out for the Smoke & Fire Summit she hosted Saturday at Southern Oregon University. It quickly became evident there’s a lot we can do, but there isn’t any magic bullet to stop smoke and wildfire, a range of experts said, especially in an era of worsening climate change.
Christopher Dunn, a researcher at the Oregon State University College of Forestry, said we’re stuck between old and new paradigms. The old is what Native Americans did for some 15,000 years, which is “live with it” and do controlled burns to open up forests for food and wildlife. The new paradigm, fire suppression, came in response to the Devil’s Broom fire of 1910 in Idaho and Montana that burned 8 million acre. That suppression policy led to a century-long buildup of forest fuels.
In recent decades, we’ve gotten used to cool, wet periods in summers, Dunn said, and we thought that was the norm. With global warming, that’s gone and “we’re not going to be able to exclude fire.” No new paradigm is emerging yet, but the good news is that all sides are ready to collaborate, he adds, and “we’re on the verge of being there, despite the lack of (action) at the national level.”
Fire is an inevitable fact of nature and “the reality is we need to get back to a 10-year return (that is, any part of the forest will burn every decade) and we’ve got to see 8 percent of forests burn every year, instead of 1 to 2 percent we allow now.”
Mark Webb, executive director of Blue Mountain Forest Partners in northeast Oregon, is a former judge who mediated long “painful, frustrating” disputes between environmentalists and the wood products industry — painting a picture where both sides can learn to respect and listen to each other and get on the same page by asking the question, “What does the landscape need?”
When protections for the spotted owl clamped down on logging in western Oregon, much of it shifted to eastern Oregon, where environmentalists “shut down our industry” — but, ironically, forests were “much more prone to catastrophic fire and the environmental people started losing old growth to fire.”
Both sides weren’t going to get their way. For the industry, it meant retooling and for environmentalists, they were going to have to support some harvesting, he said, and that meant “developing a relationship, a conversation with people you disagree with. It took humility and vulnerability to open the conversation to trust. People aren’t going to risk until they know they’re heard.”
Marko Bey, executive director of Lomakatsi Restoration Project, said the industry and environmentalists need to get to the table and collaborate, creating solutions on very complex problems to “create a more resilient landscape with active management in an ecological fashion, increasing the pace and scale of ecological restoration.”
Don Ferguson, a retired Bureau of Land Management natural resources manager, jokingly summed up the choice: “Do you want your smoke all at once or (in controlled burns) through the year?”
As for personal and community health impacts of smoke, Lillian Shirley, public health director of the Oregon Health Authority, said awareness is growing about the “unseen consequences” of smoke sieges — and the need for more coordinated planning between local and state agencies, especially for older and disabled people.
More focus, she said, will be on monitoring and rapid reporting of air quality, delivery of oxygen and other technologies to vulnerable people and circumventing licensing paperwork when medical crews and first responders are needed from out of state in smoke emergencies.
The main danger in smoke is particulate matter, smaller than the width of a human hair — and especially menacing if you have underlying heart or lung disease, said Dr. Richard Leman, chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority.
Children tend to be outside playing and breathing hard and extended exposure over months and years can increase their risk of asthma in later life, Leman said. Homeless people, being outside more, are especially vulnerable.
Our nasal passages and respiratory systems are built to clear out particulates, but some particles are so small they actually go into the blood stream, making breathing more difficult, he adds.
This has been “the worst summer we’ve seen,” said Jackson Baures, environmental public health manager for Jackson County, and the solutions are well-known: stay inside, leave the area if practical, get air filters, air purifiers and masks — but educate yourself on masks, he said. They have to be top-of-the-line, fit well and don’t work if you have facial hair, Leman notes. When driving, put air conditioning on recycle, not venting in from outside.
Heat waves persist in smoke season and many people think they can open windows overnight to let out hot air, but Belle Shepherd, a coordinated care organization innovator agent with Oregon Health Authority in Medford, advises against it, noting the particulate is not going to go away.
On a positive note, Shepherd says they haven’t seen any rise in cardiac arrests during this summer’s smoke. Also, some churches, SOU and libraries are open to being clean air shelters, but “we need to work on identifying more.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.