An ambitious forest restoration project in Ashland, Oregon, aims to reduce the risk that wildfire poses to residents—and their water supply.
Though the warning signs had been present for months, the bad news officially came in March 2018, when forecasters at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC) in Portland, Oregon, released their long-range forecast of the upcoming fire season. Though it varied from state to state, in Oregon, light snowpack and higher-than-average temperatures combined to create a highly combustible landscape. “I’m worried about the 2018 fire season,” John Saltenberger, the fire weather program manager at the NWCC, told a Portland television station.
It was discouraging news for a state that, like California and other western states, has seen a growing number of increasingly intense wildfires in recent years. According to Oregon Department of Forestry statistics, 69 percent of the state’s largest recorded wildfires have occurred in the past 20 years. The largest, 2012’s Long Draw Fire, scorched nearly 560,000 acres of predominantly federal land in the southeastern part of the state. In the geological age known as the Anthropocene, the current epoch might one day be known as the Era of Megafires. A megafire is typically defined as a single wildfire that exceeds 100,000 acres. Such fires are “nearly commonplace now,” says Chris Chambers, who for the past 15 years has served as the forest division chief for the City of Ashland, Oregon. “Whereas 20, 30 years ago, a 100,000-acre fire was unheard of.”
Throughout the western United States, fires today burn hotter and longer than they did in the past. One study found that today’s fires consume, on average, 5,000 percent more land area than wildfires 40 years ago, and that fire season in the Northwest has lengthened from three weeks to more than three months. The U.S. Forest Service now spends more than half of its budget fighting wildfires, a figure that in 2017 topped $2 billion. This is partially owing to land-use trends. Between 1990 and 2010, the amount of land considered part of the wildland–urban interface, or WUI, those areas where houses and other development intermingle with nature, increased by 41 percent, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s SILVIS Lab. The forest service estimates that 44 million houses occupy this zone, representing one out of every three houses in the nation. In Oregon, the figure is slightly higher: 36 percent of all housing units are located within the WUI.
The West is no stranger to fire. For millennia, it was a regular part of the region’s ecology. But these historic fires, with some exceptions, were generally low severity, regulated by a lack of understory and eventually snuffed out by natural firebreaks. As land managers adopted policies of total fire suppression, the forest changed. It filled in. These natural firebreaks disappeared. Today’s forests are pure fuel, with brush and young trees that burn easily and turn a relatively small fire into a blaze of biblical proportions. Such megafires pose a threat not just to human life but to watersheds and critical infrastructure, as California saw in early 2018 when what was then the largest wildfire in recent history—it would be topped by year’s end—left in its wake a barren landscape, creating the conditions for the mudslide that killed more than 20 people and closed Highway 101 for nearly two weeks.
Even more alarming, perhaps, is the global impact of such megafires. According to a joint study conducted by the National Park Service and the University of California, Berkeley, wildfires contribute hugely to greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Between 2001 and 2010, California’s forests and natural areas were responsible for 69 million tons of carbon emissions, two-thirds of which were produced by wildfires. Statewide, wildfires accounted for between 5 and 7 percent of total carbon emissions. “The megareleases of carbon during these fires are a huge addition to global warming,” Chambers says. “Not only that, but the scale of high-intensity fire is eliminating conifers, and the carbon-holding capacity of coniferous forests is significant.” In other words, these megafires are part of a feedback loop in which climate change, through extreme temperatures and intensifying droughts, fuels enormous fires that spew carbon into the atmosphere and reduce a forest’s carbon-carrying capacity, which in turn accelerates global climate change. Each fire season, Chambers says, the cycle ratchets up. “Now, it’s just continuous.”
If the picture he paints is bleak, Chambers is no doomsayer. For the past eight years, he has helped lead the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project (AFR), an ambitious, cross sector wildfire mitigation effort that, according to researchers, could serve as a model for other communities throughout the West. Ashland, a picturesque hamlet with a population of 20,000 people, is located within the Rogue River Valley, just north of the California border. It’s an outdoorsy place, a mecca for mountain bikers and backpackers. Nature is a major part of the city’s economy—and its identity. “There really is no line between the forest and the town,” says Tracy Peddicord, a landscape architect and real estate broker who is also a member of Ashland’s Wildfire Mitigation Commission. Where other cities have factories or tech companies, Ashland has the Siskiyou Mountains, portions of which are protected as part of the 1.8-million-acre Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Ashland’s other major draw is its annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The festival, founded in 1935, runs eight months out of the year and last year attracted nearly 400,000 people to the city. Since 2013, the Shakespeare Festival has been forced to cancel performances almost every year because of smoke from nearby wildfires. In 2017, the festival refunded $300,000 worth of presold tickets. “We had fires burning all around us,” Chambers says. “Every way the wind blew it was smoke. That lasted for 48 days.” As festivalgoers fled, so did some residents, Chambers among them. He took his family to San Francisco, only to find the city trapped in its own suffocating haze of wildfire smoke.
In 2018, which by October had become the costliest year in Oregon history for fighting wildfires, smoke canceled performances again. This time the festival’s losses were estimated at $2 million.
Despite these smoke events, Ashland has escaped the worst of the Northwest’s most severe wildfires. But the city’s leadership knows it’s only a matter of time. According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jackson County, which includes Ashland, “experiences one of the highest occurrences of wildfire in Oregon.” In a survey of more than 400 counties across the West, Jackson County ranked second in terms of vulnerability to wildfire.
The flames themselves are only a small part of the threat. Of greater concern is the danger a wildfire poses to the city’s water supply. Ashland draws the majority of its potable water from the Ashland Creek and Reeder Reservoir, perched at an elevation of roughly 2,800 feet several miles south of the city. With the steep slopes of the 15,000-acre watershed covered in a highly granitic soil (“people call it the big sandbox,” Chambers says), a high-severity wildfire could clog the reservoir with sediment—not to mention ash—a disaster for the city’s water supply. (Until recently, Ashland relied on the reservoir for 100 percent of its water.)
To prevent such calamity, in 2010, the City of Ashland, the Nature Conservancy, the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, and a number of state and federal agencies signed a joint stewardship agreement and began using a combination of controlled burns and selective logging—aka thinning—to remove highly flammable young trees and brush from the watershed. Doing so returns the forest to something like its historic condition and significantly reduces its fuel load, the technical term for combustible vegetation, living or dead. “We end up with something which is more parklike,” Chambers says. “It’s open, full of big trees with more space in the canopy, and more light and nutrients and water available to those trees.”
Ashland isn’t alone in its efforts to proactively reduce the risk of wildfire. A coalition of government and private landowners is using similar strategies on 128,000 acres of the Elkhorn Mountains in northeastern Oregon, funded in part through the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. Still, Ashland has become something of a poster child for progressive wildfire mitigation.
From the beginning, the city’s restoration work has been creatively funded, starting with $6.5 million from the forest service, part of a federal economic stimulus project. In 2010, the City of Ashland and its partners had been working together for roughly seven years, through a memorandum of understanding. There was a vision for a much more robust forest resiliency effort but no plan as to how to pay for it. Then the Obama administration announced that it was looking for “shovel-ready” projects that could put Americans back to work. Ashland had one. To date, the project has produced 17 full-time jobs and more than 150 part-time or seasonal positions, not to mention indirect economic benefits.
Besides federal grant money, the city has contributed a good portion of its own budget to the project, including money from the government-owned water utility, given that the restoration work ultimately benefits the watershed. The city and the other nonfederal partners are required by the federal government to match 10 percent of the project budget, which to date has reached $20 million.
Today, the AFR has thinned more than 8,400 forested acres, approximately 500 of which have been burned. The project partners began with areas closest to the city, since they posed the greatest risk to private property, and worked their way deeper into the watershed. The vegetation that is removed is put into burn piles (to be burned during the rainy season, when the risk of spreading is lowest) while trees with diameters of at least nine inches are felled and trucked to a local sawmill. By the city’s estimate, the project has produced 14 million board feet of lumber, generating $6 million, revenue that Chambers says is put back into the project.
It’s a far cry from the “timber wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, which pitted the logging industry against environmentalists in the debate over threats to the northern spotted owl. The region was split. “You either were an advocate for logging or you were an advocate for [being] hands off,” Chambers says. “There wasn’t a lot of middle ground. And that’s where we’ve driven a wedge over the decades.”
Or rather built a bridge. Ashland’s biggest assets are its diplomatic civic leaders, says Paul Hessburg, a research landscape ecologist and a leading expert in the subject of fire ecology. Hessburg works out of the forest service’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Wenatchee, Washington, but spends a good deal of his time traveling around the country, giving talks about how communities can combat wildfires. In 2017 he gave a TED talk on the subject, “Why wildfires have gotten worse—and what we can do about it.” The video has been viewed more than a million times.
Hessburg says Ashland’s approach has been exemplary. The city has embraced an evidence-based approach that weaves together the most recent research in both landscape ecology and wildfire mitigation, while also continually updating its fire-adapted community policies. “They’re nailing it,” Hessburg says. Why? Because Ashland’s city officials have prioritized building relationships across departments and sectors and at every level of government, Hessburg says. He gives special credit to Chambers, whom he describes as a “critically important liaison between the structural firefighting community and the wildland firefighting community,” as well as Ashland’s mayor, John Stromberg, a “good point of the spear.” Both men, Hessburg says, are bridge builders, able to earn the public’s and other partners’ trust. And if communities in the West are going to reduce the risk of wildfire, it’s going to require rebuilding trust, Hessburg says, between state and federal agencies as well as between the U.S. government and tribal authorities.
If the AFR represents a model for future forest resilience projects, however, it’s also been a work in progress. Smoke from controlled burns, which in certain instances has drifted into town, has earned the sharpest criticism. “People aren’t too keen on smoke coming into the community, especially after very smoky summers from regional wildfires,” Chambers says. “Convincing people that more smoke is a good thing is quite an uphill battle.” The city tries to time burns with optimal weather conditions, but it’s difficult to ensure that smoke never reaches the community.
Equally difficult has been the reframing of public perception. A century of fire suppression has convinced people that today’s hyperdense forests are “natural,” and the city has spent significant time and energy dismantling that notion, tabling at farmers’ markets and installing interpretive signage along trails. Peddicord, the landscape architect, admits that walking through a thinned and freshly burned landscape can be disorienting for a person, especially if he or she has strong ties to the area. “It’s hard because what we sometimes think of as the native forest is still a result of 80 years of intervention,” she says.
Eight years after it was initiated, the AFR is building on its successes. The consortium recently signed contracts to expand its restoration work from the current 8,400 acres to 58,000 acres, the majority of which is private, paid for, in part, by a $6 million grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy is monitoring the watershed and using fuel load modeling to evaluate how much effect the restoration work has had on the risks that wildfire poses to Ashland and its water supply. No matter what the models show, Chambers knows that “the ultimate measure of success is when the fire comes, what happens?”
Until then, Peddicord feels safer knowing that Ashland is doing everything it can to protect its residents. She too credits Chambers and the rest of the city leadership for the amount of progress made. “In an era of people complaining about government overreach,” she says, “I’m grateful that there are people who are working to try to make their community better in the face of real danger.”
Timothy A. Schuler writes about design, ecology, and the natural environment. He lives in Honolulu.