According to the Forest Service plan — which Dunn calls “a big pivot” — the fuel build-up is at “crisis proportions.” 

By Grace Miller | The Corvallis Advocate | JANUARY 30, 2022

The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of national forest, and recently announced a plan to protect — or support efforts to protect — 50 million of those acres against wildfire via machine thinning and prescribed burns, a shift from a century of federal policy that prioritized fire suppression tactics. In November 2021, a bipartisan infrastructure bill authorized $5.5 billion for employee training, higher firefighter pay, land restoration, material acquisition, and fire-risk tracking in fiscal years 2022-2026. 

An October 2021 Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition study found that modern fires are larger and more economically damaging than fires of the past as a result of climate change and urbanization. There have been fewer wildfires on average per year since 2000 compared to the 1990s, but the modern fires burn more territory: an annual average of 7 million acres burned since 2000 versus an average of 3.3 million acres a year during the ‘90s.  

The federal plan explains that acres that once held 40 to 60 trees now hold hundreds. James Johnston is an Oregon State University fire ecologist who believes that forests need prescribed burning to reduce the fuel that builds up over years.  

“We’ve actually made decent progress in the last decade in increasing mechanical treatments,” said Johnston. “But prescribed fire has been flat for decades and that needs to change.” 

Prescribed burning is risky, politically and practically — for one thing, there aren’t currently enough firefighters trained to conduct them. For another, any prescribed burn can become unprescribed in a matter of seconds if the conditions allow. 

Fire agencies may also prioritize protection for at-risk areas near population centers, where the stakes are often highest if a blaze gets out of control. Fire researchers call this the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI. The Forest Service says that a third of all homes in the U.S. are in this interface.  

Susan Prichard, a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, says that prioritizing forest in the WUI is understandable, but not sufficient.  

“We get our drinking water from public lands, and we’re really hoping that our forests will also sequester and store carbon as we’re thinking about ways to mitigate climate change,” said Prichard. “And unfortunately, those values are not protected by just treating forests right around where people live.” 

Chris Dunn, a researcher at the OSU College of Forestry, says that all people — whether homeowners, city, county or state governments, etc. — are responsible for dealing with climate change, as exemplified in current challenges with fire. He says a person might think they don’t need to participate in fire protection measures because of the Forest Service’s widespread mobilization, but their actual vulnerability to fire may remain unchanged depending on their location.  

According to the Forest Service plan — which Dunn calls “a big pivot” — the fuel build-up is at “crisis proportions.” 

By Grace Miller