In the summer of 2017, Oregonians woke up and smelled not coffee, but the pungent aroma of a thick haze of smoke that had descended across the state.
After a mild 2016 wildfire season, following record seasons the previous two years, Oregon’s luck ran out. Despite the efforts of firefighting crews regarded as among the best for private and public lands, lightning and human-caused wildfires ravaged the state’s forests and rangelands, making 2017 one of the worst wildfire seasons on record.
News headlines quickly captured the expense of fighting all those fires, but fire suppression represents just a fraction of the true cost of wildfire. There are huge impacts to air quality and health, school athletics, travel and tourism, employment and the economy, transportation, and iconic Oregon economic sectors such as the state’s wine and timber industries.
No single state agency is charged with documenting these costs, so the Oregon Forest Resources Institute gathered what information is currently available from media reports, individual interviews and research. We released our 25-page report in January. You can read a four-page summary here.
What we found is that the causes of wildfire are complex. Fire does play an important role in Oregon’s fire-adapted forest ecosystems. We can never be “fire-free.” But it’s now up to the state’s leaders, scientists and policymakers to have a crucial conversation and chart a course where Oregonians can co-exist with fire while simultaneously mitigating its impact on our economy and our health. By looking at the non-suppression costs, the OFRI report highlights why the need for such a conversation has now reached the critical stage.
The 2017 wildfires encroached on the daily lives of our state’s 4 million residents. Hazardous smoke drifted into small communities and major metropolitan areas alike. Breathing was difficult and caused many school athletic contests, as well as outdoor concerts and performances, to be canceled. Restaurants, retailers and other businesses lost revenue. Highways closed. Workers took long detours to get to their jobs, or stayed home. More than 7,000 people were evacuated from their homes due to fire danger.
Air quality and health
Wildfire smoke, a mix of particulate matter and gases, irritates the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system, and can be inhaled into the deepest part of the lungs, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
At high levels, it’s dangerous even for healthy people, but it is especially dangerous for those with chronic health conditions, people older than 65, infants, children and pregnant women.
During the 2017 fire season, most of Oregon experienced hazardous levels of smoke, including 160 days that were considered Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups (USG), compared to none of those days in 2016 and fewer than half that many at the USG level in 2015.
This led to a variety of impacts, including:
- Increased emergency room visits – 86 percent higher than expected in the first week of September, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
- Cancellations of high school sporting events. Oregon high schools canceled dozens of football and soccer games from August through October – more than four times as many as were canceled in 2016 and 2015.
Travel, tourism and employment
According to the most recent figures, Oregon’s tourism industry employs about 110,000 people and generates $11.3 billion in economic impact for the state. In 2017, wildfires hit the industry with blazing force, keeping away tourists and the money they would spend in Oregon. According to the Oregon Employment Department, hundreds of tourism workers received early layoff notices.
Among the high-profile impacts of the wildfire smoke that blanketed the state were:
- The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland canceled nine performances in 2017, a direct loss of $373,000. About 85 percent of its audience is composed of tourists. In an average year, the festival adds about $130 million to the local economy. It announced that it will trim 12 positions from its 2018 budget after last year’s revenue shortfall.
- Cycle Oregon canceled its annual ride, a premier cycling event for the state. The ride travels through different parts of rural Oregon each year, amounting to $450,000 spent in local communities.
- The Sisters Folk Festival was canceled. This annual community festival attracts 5,000 visitors to central Oregon and generates $1.2 million. The proceeds would have benefited arts education programs.
For nearly three weeks, all drivers were detoured off Interstate 84 when the highway was closed from Hood River to Troutdale because of fire danger. This translated to long detours for commuters and trucking companies – a hard economic hit.
About 20 percent of the 28,000 vehicles that travel the highway each day are freight trucks delivering goods, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. Longer travel distances meant extra time and cost.
In central Oregon, U.S. Highway 20 experienced traffic congestion. In the Brookings area, Highway 101 was closed off and on during the fire season, affecting 18,000 vehicles a day.
Rural and social impacts
The fires also impacted other areas of community life, including:
- Oregon’s timber industry and its workers faced reduced log supply at plywood plants, temporary mill shutdowns, restrictions on logging because of dry conditions, and losses of heavy equipment and timber due to fire
- limits on recreational opportunities, with popular outdoor attractions and wilderness areas remaining closed because of fire damage
- a drain on the resources of nonprofit organizations that provided support for Oregonians displaced from their homes by fires
How do we move forward?
Wildfires caused by lightning and people wreaked havoc on Oregon’s forests and rangelands in 2017, and the impact on Oregon life was far-reaching.
It’s clear that, with 665,000 acres burned in 2017, the state lost timber that supports the wood products industry, as well as other forest benefits such as outdoor recreation, beautiful scenery, wildlife habitat and healthy watersheds.
It’s also obvious that fires are costly in terms of suppression efforts. During the peak of the 2017 fire season in Oregon, some 8,000 firefighters were working to put out wildfires across the state. In total, it cost $454 million to fight all those fires.
Yet the costs don’t stop there. The blazes and the smoky air they produced also took a toll on people’s health, and on their ability to safely spend time outside. Event cancellations, highway closures and residential evacuations affected the economy, including significant losses to tourism, trucking and recipients of goods, among other industries.
Oregon is not alone in suffering worsening fire seasons. In the western United States, the length of the average fire season has grown by 78 days since 1970, from five months to more than seven months. The questions loom: Is this the new normal? What economic and human effects did Oregon experience in 2017, and what similar impacts will wildfires have going forward?
As a society we need to ask: How we co-exist with a fire-based forest ecosystem? What do we want from our forests in the future? Finding the answers will be hard and perhaps unpleasant, but the alternative of simply waiting to suffer through another fire season similar to 2017’s would be kicking the can down the road.
Are there options in the forest management toolbox to address some of the problems caused by wildfires? And if so, how do we overcome obstacles to effectively using forest management tools in at-risk communities and ecosystems?
This all begs one more question: Where do we go from here?
For the forest,
Photo credits: (from left to right) Rich Hatfield, the Xerces Society; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Sarah Frey
Pollinators are very important to Oregon agriculture and gardening, because pollination is necessary for the production of many fruits and vegetables. But since Colony Collapse Disorder was first discovered in European honeybees in 2006, there has been a rising concern for the well-being of pollinators. As a result, scientists have sought to learn more about our native pollinators and the health of their populations.
Pollinators are any animal that moves pollen from one plant to another. In Oregon, pollinators include bees, beetles, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds, wasps and flies.
Scientists continue to gain a better understanding of just how important many native pollinators are to our state’s agriculture and garden crops. They’ve also learned that how the forests and wildlands around our agricultural land are managed can have an impact on pollinators.
For instance, it turns out managed forests are very important habitat for pollinators. That’s because pollinators thrive in disturbed sites such as recent burns, windfalls and timber harvests. A study being conducted by Jim Rivers of the Oregon State University College of Forestry’s Forest Animal Ecology Lab has shown that native bees are found in high numbers in the open areas where timber harvest was recently conducted. His research team has also found a higher abundance of bees in areas that burned in wildfires.
Open areas with full sunlight, including recent clearcuts, meadows, savannahs and pastures, can provide habitat for pollinators, especially if there are suitable plant forage and nesting opportunities. Besides open areas, pollinators need flowering plants because pollen and nectar are their main food sources. Planting these types of plants is a good way to help pollinators.
One Oregon forest products company, Portland-based Hampton Lumber, is experimenting with planting a custom pollinator-friendly seed mix in recent clearcuts on their timberland, to help boost native pollinator populations. Other forest landowners are watching this and considering doing the same.
To help forest landowners learn more about pollinators and ways they can help conserve native populations, OFRI recently published a new fact sheet called “Pollinators and Forestry.” You can download a copy here. The fact sheet features a list of plant species that could be included in pollinator-friendly seed mixes. It also lists the understory plants that benefit from and are important for pollinators. These are good species to keep across the landscape to support healthy pollinator populations.
With the research showing that pollinators benefit from managed forests, conscious management decisions such as planting pollinator-friendly seed mixes after a timber harvest could enhance those benefits. By providing a mosaic of different age classes, including recently harvested areas with forage and nesting opportunities near farmland, forestry could help make a difference for declining pollinator populations.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry
Fran Cafferata Coe
Certified Wildlife Biologist ®
On Nov. 6, Gov. Kate Brown issued “Executive Order 17-20, Accelerating Efficiency in Oregon’s Built Environment to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Address Climate Change.” It lays out 17 directives intended to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, primarily through energy-efficiency measures.
Energy efficiency is important, particularly in light of the thousands of inefficient, 40-plus-year-old buildings that make up a majority of Oregon’s built environment. Buildings, through their construction and operation, are the single biggest contributor to carbon emissions – surprisingly, even worse than the transportation sector.
The goal of EO 17-20 is for all newly constructed state buildings to achieve carbon-neutral operations by the year 2022. That’s great. I hope we can get there. In fact, we should strive for all new buildings, state-owned or otherwise, to achieve carbon neutrality. Seems to me it wouldn’t be all that difficult.
Spurred by the popularity of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building-rating system, we’ve made huge strides in energy-efficiency technology over the past three decades. Rare is the new building today that isn’t heavily insulated and equipped with high-efficiency heating and ventilation systems. Many make good use of daylighting, are equipped with wastewater recycling systems or have some sort of clean-energy-generation system such as rooftop wind turbines or solar panels. Often, today’s new buildings have all the above and more. We’ve gotten so good at energy efficiency that soon the day will come when the larger source of carbon emissions is the energy consumed to make the materials used to construct the building in the first place.
That’s a point not lost on developers such as Ben Kaiser, whose cross-laminated timber (CLT) building, known as Carbon12, is nearly complete. Long before EO 17-20 was issued, Kaiser recognized the need to make his north Portland condominium project energy-efficient. As such, he designed into it things like exterior insulation that wraps the entire structure, so the building requires less energy to heat or cool. Large, highly efficient windows maximize daylighting while achieving better-than-code thermal efficiency. The condos in Carbon12 all have high-efficiency heat exchangers that allow warm air from one unit to mix with cooler air from another so energy isn’t wasted. And the building is solar-ready, with state-of-the-art systems in place for when residents choose to add solar panels.
Kaiser also understands that we need to go beyond just energy efficiency if we want to fully mitigate the carbon impacts of buildings. Because he chose wood as the primary material for Carbon12’s structure, he knows the energy-efficiency measures he incorporated will achieve their maximum effect much sooner than if he’d chosen more energy-intensive materials that don’t store carbon the way wood does.
The extremely low amount of energy needed to make wood products, and their incredible ability to store atmospheric carbon, gives timber buildings a head start. Before builders installed a single piece of insulation, the wood in Carbon12 had already offset about 800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Had Kaiser instead chosen to build with reinforced concrete, for example, it would have taken years, perhaps even decades, before the energy-efficiency measures he added to the building would have the chance to offset the emissions associated with making the concrete and the steel rebar.
We already know how to build highly energy-efficient buildings, and Gov. Brown is right to encourage faster adoption of those technologies. But let’s also remain cognizant of the very real gains that can be had by choosing building materials wisely. There’s no reason we can’t do both.
Director of Forest Products
After the summer of fire we had in Oregon and the West, there has been a lot of discussion about the causes of all those fires. Some argue climate change, while others blame a lack of forest management. The truth is that both factors are to blame.
A recent study from Oregon State University and a new publication from the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station highlight the need for more active management on National Forests, as a changing climate contributes to more severe fire seasons.
In the study, Matthew Reilly, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the OSU College of Forestry, led a team of researchers who analyzed patterns of landscape change in the eastern Cascades of Washington, Oregon and northern California. The team examined low-, medium- and high-intensity fires in ponderosa pine, mixed conifer and subalpine forests from 1985 to 2010.
The study found that about 30 percent of subalpine forests and 10 percent of mixed conifer and ponderosa pine forests burned during the 25-year study period. About a third of the area burned with high severity. The study also found that forest restoration work to make forests more fire-resilient has fallen far short of the level needed to make a difference on a landscape scale.
The study covered all forestlands. But in eastern Oregon, nearly 70 percent of the forestland is managed by the federal government, predominantly by the U.S. Forest Service, so the results seem to be most applicable to National Forests.
The Reilly team’s study has been published online by the academic journal Ecological Applications, and you can read a full report of the findings here. A news release from OSU about the study is also available here.
Like the OSU study, a new report demonstrates the need for more active management on National Forests in Oregon. Oregon’s Forest Resources, 2001-2010: Ten-Year Forest Inventory and Analysis Report is now available online through the Forest Service TreeSearch webpage. This publication is an overview of the status of Oregon’s forests based on the latest data from the PNW Research Station’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program, and includes an extensive set of 51 summary data tables. Additional inventory information and another 89 summary tables are included in the online supplement.
This report has tons of great information and will be the subject of future blogs. However, I want to call attention to its discussion of the current rates of tree growth, removals and mortality on National Forest System lands.
The table below is a summary of average annual volume and percentage of growth, mortality and removals on National Forest timberland in Oregon. Timberland is the portion of the forest that is productive enough to manage for timber production and is not reserved for wilderness areas, parks or other non-timber uses.
The data shown in this table is for eastern Oregon, western Oregon and all of Oregon. What jumps out at me from this data is the relationship between mortality and removals. Overall, National Forest timberlands had 56 percent mortality of their growth and only 9 percent removals, which includes harvests and non-commercial cutting. This mortality figure contrasts sharply with state and private forests, which had 19 percent and 12 percent mortality, respectively.
Mortality can be from fire, disease, insects or blowdown. The FIA inventory doesn’t break it down by causes, but historically disease and insects account for the largest volume of tree mortality in Oregon.
The high rate of mortality on National Forest timberlands is in direct contrast with the low rate of removals, including timber harvest. A very different relationship is evident on non-National Forest timberlands.
Non-National Forest timberlands (state and private) have combined mortality rates of 13 percent and combined removal rates of 92 percent. Clearly, timberlands that are more actively managed, as indicated by removal rates, are healthier, as indicated by mortality rates. These forests have fewer dry, dead trees, also known as “zombie trees,” that can fuel the spread of a wildfire. This makes them much less vulnerable to catastrophic fires.
In the end, the best way forward to reduce catastrophic fires is the same way to reduce tree mortality on National Forest timberlands: increased active management. That’s because it not only helps reduce mortality, it also increases a forest’s fire resiliency.
For the forest,
Director of Forestry