Why now? OSU experts weigh in on wildfire debate

With much of the West in drought and with the pull of heavy winds, when you mix in extreme heat, experts say it can be the perfect recipe for disaster.

Posted: Sep 14, 2020 7:10 PM

OREGON -- As massive fires rage across Oregon, many people are in a state of shock.

However, experts at Oregon State University told KEZI 9 News that they’ve seen this coming for years.

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Daniel Leavell is an associate professor of practice at Oregon State College of Forestry and the extension State Fire Specialist.

“Every fire season and over that relatively brief period of time, we saw the change occur,” Leavell said. “We saw temperatures getting hotter. We saw the atmosphere getting drier. We saw more people moving out into more remote areas.”

Leavell described this all as a major “wakeup call.”

“Once it starts burning, you can burn up thousands of acres in an hour, easily or even more. You can't get in front of that,” Leavell said. “There's nothing you can do on an offense to corral that.”

With much of the West in drought and with the pull of heavy winds, when you mix in extreme heat, experts said it can be the perfect recipe for disaster.

However, as Leavell put it, one must do their part. He said you can start with their own house -- everything from your smoke alarm to your kitchen area to find preventative measures. Then you can search outdoors, such as your yard, roof and gutters.

“You need to prepare yourself with a go bag,” Leavell said. “You need to prepare yourself with an evacuation route. You need to fill your vehicle with gas and be ready to go with your family with your pets. You need a plan in place. If you're going to live in this environment that can burn under certain conditions, you need to be prepared. You need to take preventative actions, and you need to get everyone else to do it too.”

Erica Fleishman is the director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

“It's not unexpected on a couple of levels,” Fleishman said. “The number of fires, the size of fires, the extent to which some of the fires -- especially in California if we go beyond Oregon -- are creating their own weather. That's unusual, but it's not unheard of. “

Fleishman said that this was predicted to some extent.

“Certainly the fire patterns across the West this year have been anticipated for decades by people that study climate change and study wildland fire,” Fleishman said.

There’s also been quite the debate circulated about the role forest management plays in all of this.

“There's nothing you can do to thin in these places,” Fleishman said. “There have been long-term changes in the plants that are present, and as a result changes in the likelihood of fire and the likelihood of fires becoming very large. There is, in my opinion, legitimate debate among scientists about the extent to which thinning is likely to have an effect, the mechanisms of thinning. All things related to thinning are matters of scientific debate, sweeping the forest floor or sweeping the floors of woodlands is unlikely to have an effect on the number and magnitude of fires.”

Dr. Beverly Law is a Professor of Global Change Biology & Terrestrial Systems Science in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. She also weighed in on the debate surrounding the thinning of forest floors.

“You can't stop this when you have winds like that,” Law said. “It's like a tornado coming through, and then the fires make it even worse and they create their own weather."

She said the best thing we can do is to not build next to forests and closing off forest roads would be beneficial, as well. Her thoughts on the major drivers of the fires point to the drought, wind and heat.

“They dry out the materials, the litter on the ground and understory,” Law said. “The trees are somewhat stressed."

Law said that change must be made -- now.

“It's so sad to see it happen on this large scale," Law said. "Then, to know as a scientist, that it's only going to get worse if we don't do something about it. The something is to cut our emissions. We have to do that and then set policies in place that do a better job of adapting to the conditions that we're facing.”

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