Wildfires may be a wakeup call to urban residents

Critics sometimes describe federal forest policy as “paralysis by analysis.”
Eric Mortenson

Capital Press

Published on September 6, 2017 2:19PM

The downtown skyline is visible through hazy smoke from wildfires in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017.  The dozens of fires burning across the Western United States and Canada have blanketed the air with choking smoke from Oregon to Colorado, where health officials issued an air quality advisory alert.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

The downtown skyline is visible through hazy smoke from wildfires in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. The dozens of fires burning across the Western United States and Canada have blanketed the air with choking smoke from Oregon to Colorado, where health officials issued an air quality advisory alert.

Portland’s downtown disappeared from view this week as thick smoke from wildfires settled in for an uncomfortable stay.

And that made it a problem, even though forest fires have been burning elsewhere in the West for several weeks.

All told, there were 65 active fires in nine Western states as of mid-day Sept. 6, including 19 in Oregon. The active fires have burned 1.4 million acres.

The biggest fire in Oregon, by far, is the Chetco Bar Fire in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness northeast of Brookings on the Southern Oregon coast. As of mid-day Sept. 6 if had burned nearly 177,000 acres, destroyed six homes, damaged another and threatened 8,523 more.

As multiple rural residents said in effect on social media: Welcome to our world, Portland.

Some Oregonians who work in or support the state’s stagnant timber industry had another response: We told you so.

What got Portland’s attention was the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area east of the city, a spectacular 80-mile stretch of river, timber, basalt formations and waterfalls that attracts legions of climbers, hikers and scads of tourists. The chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners mourned the damage to what she called “our playground.”

The Eagle Creek Fire lit up the Gorge like a vision from hell. It began Sept. 2, jumped to 10,000 acres by mid-week and merged with the Indian Creek Fire to cover 20,000 acres.

It filled Portland with dense smoke that obliterated all scenic views. It dusted cars and porches with tiny bits of ash, forced evacuations, closed I-84 from Troutdale east to Hood River and threatened the 92-year-old lodge at Multnomah Falls, the state’s most popular natural site with 2.5 million annual visitors.

Oregon State Police said fireworks started the fire. They’ve interviewed a 15-year-old Vancouver, Wash., boy and described him as a “suspect.”

Pushed by hot, boisterous east winds, the Eagle Creek Fire hurled flaming debris up to three-quarters of a mile and even jumped the Columbia to start a fire on the Washington side. About 150 hikers on the Eagle Creek trail system had to retreat, stop in place overnight or hike out to Wahtum Lake, but were successfully evacuated.

Citing smoke and heat, Portland public schools sent students home two hours early Sept. 5 and canceled soccer games and sports practices. Many of the city’s hardcore bicycle commuters wore handkerchiefs to cover their noses and mouths. The sun and moon took turns glowing orange in the smoke filled sky. The Oregon Department of Agriculture expressed concern that farmworkers might be breathing smoke while working outside in orchards and vineyards.

If Portlanders were stunned by the wildfire’s leaping fury, many rural Oregonians and people who work in natural resource industries said the state, and much of the West, is paying the price of paralyzed forest management policy.

Critics say the state’s publicly-managed forests are primed for disastrous fires. They believe timberland agencies, especially the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, are shackled by decades of lawsuits and continued argument over endangered species, wildlife habitat, logging roads and water quality.

A stark statistic illustrates the state of affairs: Federal agencies manage 60 percent of Oregon’s forestland, nearly 18 million acres, but that land accounts for just 15 percent of the annual timber harvest, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute.

The institute was created by the Oregon Legislature to enhance collaboration and to provide information about responsible forest management. One of its more recent reports estimated more than 350 million individual trees are standing dead on national forestland, providing ready fuel for catastrophic fires.

Nick Smith, executive director of a group called Healthy Forests Healthy Communities, said many urban and suburban residents in Portland, Seattle and elsewhere “don’t understand the grave conditions on the ground in our federally-owned forests.” Much of the forested landscape is at risk to fire, disease and insects due to dense and overgrown conditions, he said.

“What we’re seeing right now is just how outdated and unresponsive our current federal management policies are to conditions on the ground,” Smith said.

His group and others believe federal forest agencies lack the funding and legal and policy tools to increase logging and thinning. In particular, they believe fire suppression costs should be treated as other forms of disaster relief, like hurricanes. The Forest Service spends half its budget on wildfire suppression, Smith said.

Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden agree, but haven’t been able to bring about change. In a statement issued Sept. 6, Merkley said the fires “reinforce how important it is to get a long-term fix that would fund fighting huge wildfires the way that we fund other natural disasters.”

“Many of us are frustrated with current forest management practices,” Merkley said. “I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to find collaborative solutions and funding to return our forests to health.”

Meanwhile, Oregon State Police want to speak with anyone who heard fireworks in the Eagle Creek Trail or Punch Bowl Falls area between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 2. The state police phone number is 503-375-3555.


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