Wildfires are devastating to communities throughout the country, but their original purpose was to be helpful. One research facility discovered fires can still burn without taking communities down with them.
In the depths of the forest in southern Oregon, it smells like a smoldering fire. Remnants of the Bootleg Fire are still sensitive to the senses even though it has stopped burning. And now, it's at the forefront of research. Researchers at the Sycan Marsh Preserve, owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, are testing and studying wildfire activity.
Katie Sauerbrey is the acting fire manager and preserve manager.
“The stand around us that we’re walking through is kind of a model of what forest restoration and trying to create forest resiliency can look like," Sauerbrey explains.
She also fought on the front lines of blazes like the Bootleg Fire. That’s when she says she saw the success of their work in real time.
“The fire went from, in a lot of ways, some of the most extreme fire behavior I’ve witnessed in my fire career," Sauerbrey said. “This kind of rip-roaring fire through the crowns had come across the creek and had burned into an area that we treated with prescribed fire in 2019 and it was now burning on the forest floor and I cheered. I got out of my truck and I was cheering.”
Prescribed burns are set intentionally and under close monitoring for forest management. They reduce the density of forests and clean up the forest floors.
The preserve in Oregon is a living laboratory. Some areas have been treated and others are untouched. The Bootleg Fire is the most recent example of just how crucial those prescribed burns are to this ecosystem.
“If all of a sudden, you’re in a stand like this, where this is all the fuel that the fire has, you’re looking at flame lengths that are going to be this high," Sauerbrey said.
Think of it as putting a lid on a pot of boiling water.
“These forests are used to burning roughly every 13 years, and that acts as that kind of reset switch in the system," Sauerbrey said. “If you put out every fire for 100 years, you’ve missed 10 cycles that should have come through that forest stand.”
Steve Rondeau is the natural resources director for the Klamath Tribes.
“It’s the change in our society that’s creating the change in our environment," Rondeau said. “There was a time when the tribes lived on these lands and managed them and they used fire to do that.”
He, along with fire management officer Roric Padgett, works with The Nature Conservancy on these efforts. Their main goal is to allow Mother Nature to mostly control wildfires, while also protecting communities.
“It’s definitively a gut punch when you look at the areas that are devastated by the fire," Padgett said.
They say if fire suppression efforts don’t change, the devastation will only get worse.
“How many times can we have that happen and still have a forest left?” Padgett said.
Padgett says the answer is not many more. It's why they feel their discoveries made by combining wildfire science with traditional tribal knowledge can be implemented on a much bigger scale.
“Kind of this mechanical thinning followed by prescribed fire, we can do that around communities to create buffers around them so that when we do have those wildfires in the summers, it essentially creates kind of a safe space or a catcher’s mitt so we can hopefully protect those communities," Sauerbrey said.
It’s a solution they say is paramount if we want to save our ecosystem and our communities.