Thinning forests can cut fire risk, boost diversity: Guest opinion (8/9/14)

From the Oregonian, 8/9/2014
Dick has worked at Starker Forests for over 40 years and currently is our outreach and education forester.

By Dick Powell

An Aug. 1 guest opinion by Charles Thomas, “Forest thinning will increase wildfire risk,” begs for a response.

All life requires moisture, energy, air and nutrients. On any given area, those are finite and the life that can be supported (its carrying capacity) is also finite. This applies to ranchers, wildlife biologists, farmers and backyard gardeners. For example, farmers don’t plant corn two inches apart with an abundance of weeds, and gardeners don’t plant tomatoes two inches apart under the apple tree.

Carrying capacity varies greatly. Coast Range rainfall is plentiful, and forests may support several hundred trees per acre as well as other vegetation. Eastern Oregon forests are drier and may support less than a hundred trees and with far less other vegetation.

Post-settlement, we’ve put out fires and greatly increased fuels and numbers of trees. In eastern and southern Oregon, rainfall limits the land’s carrying capacity. Thinning will reduce drought-related stress and the amount of fuels.

Fire needs heat (matches and lightning), oxygen and fuel. Take one away (dirt smothers flames, water cools fire, or remove fuel) and the fire goes out. Thinning removes some of the fuel and lessens the likelihood of catastrophic fire.

There are many examples where crown fires came to a thinned area, dropped down and crept across the thinned forest’s floor. Once through the thinned area, they went back up into the canopy and resumed their catastrophic fire behavior.

I agree with Mr. Thomas when he argues that thinning will not prevent wildfires. Preventing wildfires requires there be no lightning or people who start fires. What thinning will do is reduce the amount of available fuel should a fire start.

A dense canopy lets little sunlight pass through to the understory and allows less diversity of flora and fauna. Besides reducing available fuel, thinning opens the canopy, gets more sunlight into the understory and greatly increases the forest’s diversity.

Until tree crowns grow together, a young forest has lots of sunlight reaching the ground and has the greatest diversity of both flora and fauna. After crown closure, that diversity begins to diminish. Later, as it matures and trees die, fall over, or tops die, sunlight again begins to pass through the canopy and into the understory and diversity increases. Thinning that maturing forest brings diversity back more quickly than if left alone.

Removing fuels and maintaining a green understory creates a smaller fire hazard than an accumulation of dry, woody fuels. Similarly, a layer of dry leaves around a house is far more hazardous than if green grass surrounded it.

Oregon Forest Resources Institute data shows that 73 percent of the annual growth on Oregon’s federal forests is kept as live, green, growing stock. (19 percent is lost through mortality!) The land’s carrying capacity simply cannot sustain that added growth ad infinitum. Exceeding its carrying capacity leads to an overcrowded and drought-stressed forest and to fires, insects and disease – problems found all across the West. The judicious use of harvesting (and thinning) can bring the land back within its carrying capacity.

Dick Powell is chair of the Oregon Society of American Foresters.

Back to news

Industrial Fire Precaustion Level 2 (7/30/14)

The moisture we received last week was a welcome change. Unfortunately the effects from that were short lived. The current forecast is for hot and dry conditions to persist throughout the week (and likely into next week as well). With that in mind, we are moving into an Industrial Fire Precaution Level (IFPL) 2 in WO-1 on Wednesday, July 30, 2014.

Read more»

Preparation can protect homes from wildfire risk

Benton County and wildfire safety experts from the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program are encouraging residents to prepare their homes for the impending wildfire season.

Read more»

Fire Season 2014

Fire season is approaching and probably will be declared in the next couple of weeks.

Read more»

2014 Mudslinger (4/4/14)

Welcome Mudslinger Racers!

Read more»

Reforestation at Starker Forests (3/26/14)

Starting each harvest/regeneration cycle with the highest quality seedlings we can produce, is a small but important part of our commitment to the future.

Read more»

2014 Starker Lecture Series to begin Feb 6.

John Gordon, Pinchot Professor Emeritus and Former Dean
Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies will present: Forestry Diversity: A Key to Oregon’s Future

Read more»

Starker Forests Forestry Manager, Marc Vomocil, receives Corvallis First Citizen Award

Marc likes being “under the radar” but we want to put him front and center to say Congratulations!

Read more»

Tree Planting Day 2014 Info (1/17/14)

Everything is planned as scheduled with no weather related delay or cancellation. Dress in warm attire as temperatures will be in the 30’s.

Read more»

Coming up: Spaces Available for Youth Tree Planting Day

Read more»