Oregon lawmakers are fiercely debating the cause of devastating wildfires that engulfed Western states this fall. Wildfire destruction reached a record high in Oregon this year, with over one million acres (1,562 square miles) burned just in the week following Labor Day. For context, Oregon wildfires burn about 500,000 acres in an average year, making this year’s wildfire intensity unprecedented. At least eleven Oregonians were killed, more than 500,000 Oregonians were placed under an evacuation order, and over 40,000 were forced to leave their homes. While climate change and fire management practices have both contributed to this devastation, it is clear that a changing climate is the primary driver of Oregon’s unprecedented 2020 wildfire season.
On ‘Face the Nation’, Oregon’s Governor Kate Brown called the crisis, “a wake-up call for all of us that we have got to do everything in our power to tackle climate change.” Her comments have recently reignited the especially contentious politics of climate change in Oregon.
Both nationally and in Oregon, the debate over the cause of the recent series of wildfires has pitted climate change against forest mismanagement. Democratic legislators argue that drier conditions as a result of climate change played a strong role in increasing the severity of the fires, while Republican legislators claim that the blame should instead be placed on poor forest management as a result of environmental policies passed by Democrats.
According to Oregon’s Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, who’s house in Lyons, OR was burned down in the recent Beachie Creek fire, Governor Brown “has destroyed the state’s ability to fight fires by refusing to update forest management policies. All the fuel and dry tinder in the forests is a direct result of environmental laws that have made it impossible to thin and harvest Oregon’s forest and natural resources.” While forest management greatly influences wildfire intensity, Senator Girod’s claim that environmental laws have hindered Oregon’s ability to fight fires is untrue, as climate change has driven the vast increase in fires this season.
The Role of Climate Change
Scientific predictions of climate change’s effects on wildfires are certainly materializing in the Western U.S. A 2014 IPCC report said that wildfires and related damages were projected to increase globally this century, particularly in parts of Europe and throughout western North America, as a result of warmer temperatures and drier conditions driven by climate change.
In a 2017 Scientific American article, Chelsea Harvey summarized the scientific understanding of the climate factors that act as a basis for these predictions. First, climate change causes more extreme winds, fanning more flames when fires break out. Some of Oregon’s fires have been partially attributed to, among other things, “an incredible wind storm.” Additionally, studies predicted that warming temperatures cause an increase in lightning strikes, which caused many of the first major wildfires in California this season. Finally, higher ambient temperatures would cause plants to lose more water during transpiration, leaving them drier and more susceptible to fire. The fires in the Pacific Northwest occurred less than a month after a heat wave hit the Northwestern part of Oregon. Despite the consistencies with climate predictions, such as those cited in Scientific American, Oregon’s wildfires are not often reported in the context of climate change. Analysis of broadcast news outlets reveals that only 15% of corporate broadcast TV outlets’ wildfire coverage over Labor Day weekend mentioned climate change in relation to the fires, while only 4% made the same connection during California’s August wildfires.
The Role of Forest Management
To be sure, forest management has impacted the extent and intensity of this year’s wildfires. Throughout Western states, there was copious amounts of fuel on the ground, which intensified the fires. But those on the frontlines say it’s not as simple as blaming either climate change or land management. Governor Brown acknowledged that the situation is a result of “decades of mismanagement of our forests in this country, and it is the failure to tackle climate change. We need to do both, and we can.” Even properly managed forests can only go so far in preventing out-of-control fires. Fire ecologists have explained that no amount of “clearing” in the forests could have prevented this year’s disasters.
“In a wind-driven event at 30 miles an hour, where you’ve got embers flying far ahead of the actual flame fronts and flame lengths being much greater than normal, is thinning going to really be enough to stop a home from burning in an inferno like that?” contends Jim Gersbach of the Oregon Department of Forestry.
This year’s wildfires are also not limited to managed forest area. Many have roared through coastal chaparral and grasslands, not forest, and ⅔ of the total acres burned in the west coast states have been on federal land outside of the state government’s jurisdiction. Retired wildland firefighter and certified fire ecologist Tim Ingalsbee pointed to the Holiday Farm Fire near his home in Eugene, which burned through several square miles of industrial tree plantation. “This area has experienced the maximum timber management possible” he said, “and has made these lands even more flammable than the native forests.”
It is also not easy to implement effective forest management. Oregon’s Department of Forestry already spends about $10 million every year conducting wildfire management practices such as tree thinning and brush clearing, though many Democrats, such as Rep. Pam Marsh from Ashland, argue this is still insufficient. Additionally, forest thinning and controlled burns on the scale necessary to combat large wildfires are challenging to pull off, especially as more people move into rural areas and build vacation homes deeper into the woods, complicating the landscape for prescribed burns.
Many areas also lack capacity or money to effectively manage wildfire risks, according to John Bailey, an Oregon State University professor of tree growth and fire management. He points out that there are no longer enough mills to handle salvageable timber, whose proceeds can help offset the costs of forest thinning. Bailey feels that wildfire resilience treatments are making some progress, and thinks “more folks are probably ‘on board’ to the ideas, but implementation is hard.”
The Role of Contentious Politics
Implementation is especially hard when the state government is incapable of passing forest management legislation. During the 2020 session, Governor Brown introduced SB 1536, a wildfire mitigation bill crafted from the conclusions of the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. The bill would have provided more resources to Oregon firefighters, as well as funding for Oregon Emergency Management to help with evacuation plans and recovery efforts for fire-affected communities. The Council estimated these projects would cost about $200 million a year for the next 20 years. Republicans expressed concern over the ambitions and cost, and voted against the bill in committee. If the bill had made it out of committee, it likely would have passed in both houses.
Unfortunately for those who hoped for updated wildfire policy, Oregon Republican leaders prematurely shut down the 2020 legislative session. Oregon Democrats had been working on an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill to address climate change by cutting carbon emissions statewide and reinvesting the proceeds from carbon allowances in green programs and environmental justice communities. As this bill looked poised to pass, both House and Senate Republicans staged a walkout to deny the legislature its required ⅔ quorum and prevent all legislative business from being accomplished that session, including SB 1536.
Among those who walked out was the aforementioned Senator Girod, who criticized the Governor for failing to update policies that could affect wildfire severity. Oregon Republicans have staged a walkout five times since May 2019, four of which were to prevent a vote on the cap-and-trade bill.
Matt Donegan chairs the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response. After the walkout in March, he told Oregon Public Broadcasting that the worst case scenario would be that Oregon suffers a horrible fire season, and “the recommendations we made could have been helpful in preventing some kind of tragedy.” Given the record-setting burning in Oregon and rising death toll, Donegan’s worst case scenario appears to have been realized.
As experts suggest, the key to preventing devastating wildfires is to both address climate change and update forest management practices. Oregon Republicans remain unwilling to do either.