Fight Fire with Fire: The Radical Success of Oregon’s Prescribed Burn Program (Fiction)

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Introduction

This fictional narrative is largely inspired by by the ecological debate on the importance of fire for environmental well being.

Great places to learn more about this coversation are Dr. Paul Hessberg’s TedX talk, Era of Megafires, and Outside Magazines podcast on an actual story of this issue in action:

For many years, the Forest Service has maintained a mindset of all fires out as soon as possible. At one point they even had the imfamous 9 AM Policy, wherein all wildfires had to be put out by 9 am the next day.

This goal of no-fire has led to a build up of fuels. When combined with longer hotter summers, this has created conditions that lead to truly massive and unprecedented fire

To their credit, the Forest Service is actually working to adapt their policy to reverse this. In fact, Dr. Paul Hessberg who’s mentioned above is a member of the Forest Service.

What would Western North America look like if the public and the US Forest Service got on board with a monumental increase in prescribed burns to control wildfire?

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It wasn’t so much bravery as it was cooperation. After one of the most brutal fire seasons of all time, the citizens of Oregon collectively decided that a smokey October and November was much superior to Hades smoke choked Summers.

The first rain came at Halloween. With little fanfair, thousands of state, local, corporate, and private foresters journeyed into Oregon’s majestic Western emerald ribbons along the Coast and Cascade Ranges and emerald islands. These people began doing something unthinkable, they set it ablaze.

Biscuit and Chetco were re-lit, clearing the bed of tinder that grew up after those fires and had become a big liability.

Fire creeped up the rim of Crater Lake flaming, but staying below the old growth lodgepole pines.

Fire smoldered through Alpine Meadows and tickled the bases of ancient bristle cone pines on Mount McGloughlan, Thielson, and Jefferson. The Steens, Strawberry, and Wallowas were babtized once again and as they were before European settlers, with flame.

Oregonians put special emphasis too on using fire to protect economic activity. They burned along interstates, highways, and country roads vowing that no summer flames would render these roads impassible ever again.

The carbon emissions that summer were estimated in the millions of metric tons. Smoke from this great burn drifted as far east as Des Moines and the southern shores of Hudson Bay. Doused by the Autumn’s Pacific front rain, much smoke and ash was sent back down, becoming a part of the Willamette Valley’s soil and sediment in streams and wetlands.

Despite the increased carbon and other particulates emmited by “controlling” the burns, the crowns of trees were rarely touched, and fewer whole trees burned. This made all the difference. NOAA scientists estimated this would be carbon negative project over time, because this essentially saved larger trees that could gulp down more CO2 each year and now these behemouths were protected, for years to come.

This great experiment was monitored by the state’s and world best scientists. An envoy from Indonesia’s Bogor Agricultural University School of Forestry embedded themselfs with foresters throughout the state to observe the fire’s behavior and it’s environmental impact, hoping to take lessons back home for their own prescribed burns program.

The state subsidized the mass dissemination of in home air filters temporarily making Oregon the largest purchaser of hepa filters in the world for a short time.

An altruistic billionaire supported the invention of hyper effecient in window air filters and distributed them at cost.

Every day citizens stepped up too. They knew that this grand task would only work with their support. They checked on elderly neighbors and immigrant communities to ensure they had access to clean air during this project. Hardware stores sold N95 and N100 facemasks at cost.

Oregon grown home improvement store chain, Jerry’s, launched a buy one donate one campaign for high end 3m resperators allowing consumers to pay it forward with air mask purchased. They famously then gave away the donated air masks, no questions asked to anyone who requested one. They did this both in their stores and via kiosks at transit centers and government buildings.

After this initial big burn, burning as extensive was never needed again, but Oregonians continued their support for aggressive burning every Fall. Homeowners in the forest and urban wildland boundry areas, with the help of their communities and local agencies nearly universally applied firewise principals to their homes and outbuildings. Structures rarely burnt.

Five years after that initial big burn, summer forest and wildland fires continued. But their scale was so small that the Forest Service and local agencies often let them burn. The fires were typically contained by previous controlled burns. In fact, wildland firefighters now had a new busy season, the late fall burn as they blanked out into the Oregon wilderness in small teams and conducted prescribed burns.

Oregon was truly babtized by fire. Though smoke continued to waft over from neighboring states and even Canada each summer, it was quickly realized that Oregon was no longer battling horrific fires like neighboring states.

The first to adopt Oregon’s aggressive fall buring schedule were private land holders, and communities that had been ravaged by fire prior. Finally the US Forest Service led by renowned PHD level foresters but stymied by antiquated all fires out policies finally got on board.

Finally, after Oregon led the way, fire was simultaneously tamed and embraced.

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