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Forest management the real culprit in today's wildfires

Write to the Point


No pun intended, but wildfires seem to be a hot topic lately.

It’s a time when Mother Nature can wreak havoc on already parched forests and fields across the West with a passing lightning storm just as easily as a careless human with a hot exhaust or an errant spark.

I grew up from a young age in the outdoors and the forests of the Northwest and still revel in being there.

From looking at old family photos of uncle Gordon manning a lookout in the Okanogan National Forest in the late 1930s, and my mother in her knee-high boots with a shotgun at her side, perhaps it’s in my DNA?

So every time a forest burns, especially someplace that is so very much familiar like the Methow Valley, it pains me.

And when the burn starts likely from foolishness, as was the case at the Watermelon Hill fire, it angers me.

But another thing angered me recently when it came to wildfires. That being the blanket assertions from President Barack Obama, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, and the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, that climate change is the culprit for longer, bigger and more intense wildfires.

Naturally, if those “experts” said it, heads everywhere nod in approval, the media runs with it. So it’s got to be the gospel truth, right?

But take some time and do a little research, something very few journalists seem to want to take time to do, because being first is much more important that maybe being correct.So many are simply willing to ingest everything said the spokesperson and simply regurgitate it.

Fact is, according the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) — which compiles statistics that even baseball might be envious — between 2012 and 2013, the number of wildfires dropped by over 20,000 and acreage consumed was 5 million less from a high of 9.8 million acres. And despite the headlines, fires so far in 2014 have consumed the least acreage in a decade and a half, says the NIFC.

And as for numbers of fires in a season, nothing’s come close in the past 30-plus years to the nearly 250,000 reported by the NIFC in 1981.

In Tidwell’s interview with Bend, Ore. television station Channel 21, he also claimed “Our fire seasons today are 60-80 days longer.”

Tidwell, the Washington State University grad, who is in charge of the nation’s forests, is flat wrong. Or so says Dr. Bob Zybach, who might know more than a little about the subject.

And it’s not all book-learning for the lifelong forester who spent 20 years getting down and dirty in the woods before beginning his path to undergrad, graduate and doctoral degrees from Oregon State University.

“For the last 20 or 30 years I’ve looked very closely at the history of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest,” Zybach said in a Portland radio interview. His studies show not much has changed in the past 200 years.

Zybach said when Tidwell and President Obama recently spoke to increased ferocity of fires, both were politically motivated and neither was speaking from a valid scientific standpoint.

Science is what Zybach has used to successfully calculate where and when wildfires might strike. It didn’t take any fancy tests or costly studies; all it required was looking at areas where forest management was virtually nonexistent.

What’s that they say about the “path to hell being paved with good intentions?”

That might be said about the Wilderness Act of 1964, which once had not just good, but maybe great intentions.

In a time when timber was being mowed like grass and there seemed to be a dam being built on every river, this legislation sought to tuck away some pristine snippets of the Great Outdoors for future generations to enjoy.

But without being able to manage the resource, this strategy might have backfired, Zybach said.

He used the Jefferson Wilderness area in Oregon as an example. The area suffered from beetle kill, but was left alone.

The result was dead and dry fuel that played a big part in a catastrophic wildfire Zybach predicted would occur 20 years before it happened. Oregon’s Biscuit Fire in 2002 and the B&B Complex Fires in 2003 combined to burn nearly 600,000 acres and further devastate the former pristine wilderness — and well beyond.

While it’s not at all likely to occur anytime soon, by re-examining forest management, we might be able to save some of the $1.74 billion spent just on fire suppression in 2013. And that number does not include loss of property, use of the resource and environmental harm.

Zybach concluded that a combination of thoughtful forest management could go a long way towards putting a real dent in the problem of wildfires, whether they are declining or not.

That, too, needs to be a hot topic worthy of honest debate.

Paul Delaney can be reached at

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