New Perspectives on Wildfire Management in Mixed Ownership Landscapes

For the second talk in KS Wild’s Summer Speaker Series on Fire Management, Dr. Christopher J. Dunn, a post-doc researcher at Oregon State University, who focuses on wildfire management strategies, spoke on “New Perspectives on Wildfire Management in Mixed-Ownership Landscapes.” In this lecture, Dunn focused on five key things we need to remember in our fire-prone landscape, and a new method derived from his research that may alter how we fight fires in the future.

Southern Oregon is a fire-prone landscape that has been burning for tens of thousands of years. Climate change makes total fire suppression more difficult than it was in the past. Rising temperatures cause a decrease in overall winter snowpack and faster snowmelt during the warm spring, which results in hotter, drier summers. Hotter temperatures create drier, more flammable forests, increasing the probability of wildfires, longer fire seasons, and fires that are larger and more destructive. The O&C checkerboard landscape pattern unique to southern Oregon increases the intensity of fires in our region. Therefore, work done in off seasons to identify key ridge lines and valley-bottom roads allows fire fighting agencies to be best prepared for when wildfire strikes. Using this information strategically to reduce fuels around homes and communities helps to keep us safe. The new “Potential Wildfire Operations Delineations” (PODs) system proposed by Dunn, allows for a more proactive fire management strategy that identifies where fire can be beneficial, and where it must be stopped.

Read on for more information from Dunn’s talk, and to dive deeper into the complexities surrounding mixed-ownership landscapes.

Stuck between two paradigms

Traditional tribal practices included managing landscapes through fire, including southern Oregon tribes of the Takilma, Shasta, and Karuk. When white, colonizing, settlers took the territory of these tribes and began extracting timber resources, they recognized the advantageous uses of fire. Early loggers chose to accept fire in dry forests if it meant less fire-prone wet forests, which were more profitable to them. How then did we end up with the “total suppression” practice we are currently familiar with?

Dunn explained that increased mechanization in the logging industry after World War II allowed for more effective fire suppression. Further compounding this, the Pacific coast of the United States is subject to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation weather pattern, which caused a forty-year period of wet, cool weather between 1940 to around 1980. These two factors—increased mechanization and a wetter, cooler climate—led to a system where firefighters were able to suppress fires to a previously impossible extent. The question remains, though: is this management regime still possible? Dr. Dunn explains that full suppression is not a viable fire management policy in our area because of the prevalent mixed-ownership landscape in southern Oregon and our new levels of fire severity due to a hotter, drier climate. 

The wildfire paradox

Humans are naturally averse to fire. It is hot, destructive, and its smoke is unhealthy. The public pressure to put out every fire manifests into agency incentives which systematically demand total fire suppression. Of course, this simply accumulates fuels and conditions that eventually lead up to an even larger and more destructive fire. It is up to members of the public to understand that there is no smoke free future. 

What makes a fire more intense? Weather, age and ownership. 

A classic way of analyzing a wildfires’ risk is with the triangle model: probability, intensity, and susceptibility. Probability is the likelihood of ignition and “escape” (whereby a fire grows into a controlled mass); intensity is the effects the fire has on the landscape; and susceptibility is how much damage will be done if a fire does ravage the land.

A classic way of analyzing a wildfires’ risk is with the triangle model: probability, intensity, and susceptibility. Probability is the likelihood of ignition and “escape” (whereby a fire grows into a controlled mass); intensity is the effects the fire has on the landscape; and susceptibility is how much damage will be done if a fire does ravage the land.

The three most important factors influencing wildfire severity are daily weather patterns, the age of the trees burning, and the types of fuels present, which is often influenced by different types of land management between private and public lands. Extreme heat during a fire can spread the rate of burn, while cooler, humid weather can lessen severity. The age of the forest is important since young trees with thinner bark and lower canopies burn hotter and spread fire faster. Private industry-owned lands tend to be young, overcrowded forests of homogeneous tree species, managed for timber production. Contrast this with public lands, which tend to contain older forests with diverse species, and trees with thicker bark and higher canopies. The ownership of the land significantly changes the wildfire intensity because private lands have greater and more flammable fuel loads.

Regeneration forest management practices increase fire severity on mixed-ownership land

Numerous studies have analyzed how fire management affects fire severity. Regeneration harvesting is where forests are clearcut and young timber plantations are established. This is a common practice of industrial timber lands. Studies performed within the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion on the O&C checkerboard lands have found increased severity with regeneration-style management.

One assumption that the public, and many forest managers, hold is that the amount of biomass (often called “fuel”) is the most important factor in determining a wildfire’s severity. Instead, Dunn contends that the way the forest is spatially oriented is equally, or more, important than the actual contents of the forest. Consequently, heavily managed timber plantations that tend to grow their trees densely together are more at risk of wildfires than natural forests that grow with large spaces between trunks.

We now understand that fire management is more impactful than fire exclusion. In other words, timber plantations increase the fire risk to our public forests more than total fire suppression strategies of the past. Private and public land management practices that increase fire hazards put homes and communities at risk.

The new face of fire management: Potential Wildfire Operations Delineations Systems

Dunn’s current research focuses on the foresight of fire management, and identifying preventative measures to help firefighters safely fight fires, protect home and communities, and provide ecological benefits to the fire-adapted forests of our region.

Dunn proposes a new system called “Potential wildfire Operations Delineations,” or PODs, as a way to spatially separate mixed-severity fires. The PODs system uses fire modeling and expert opinions to assign a value to how severely a fire may affect a territory, before considering the difficulty in reaching that area with fire fighting equipment. Further considering where fire breaks have been historically successful, can help fire managers decide where they should focus their efforts in order to protect homes and communities, while also letting the forests receive the ecological benefits of fire. Lands are classified by risk priority into five classifications: 

  1. “Protect” - areas of highest priority of protection, generally located around homes and communities. 

  2. “Restore” - areas without communities, but adjacent to them, or ecologically sensitive.

  3. “Maintain” - areas that are far from homes and communities, and where forests will reap ecological benefits from fires. 

  4. “Exclude” - areas with the highest risk of danger from wildfires because they have no ecological history of fire.

  5. “High complexity” - areas that have an undetermined level of danger depending on ignition location and weather conditions. 

By classifying areas before fires start, fire managers know where to initially direct resources for efficiency and effective containment. Furthermore, by spatially separating fire fighting strategies, fire managers can best focus on community protection. In the off season, fire managers can still benefit from this information when planning areas for fuels reduction.

Dunn asserts that if we can successfully utilize the new PODs system, we can live in a society with less smoke, less wildfire danger, and less community risk. The sooner we learn to live with fire, the sooner we can properly mitigate the impacts it has on our health, our communities, and our overall well-being.

What is a “mixed-ownership” landscape?

Learn more about the checkerboard “mixed-ownership” landscape in this blog post about the history of O&C lands.


“Severe fire weather and intensive forest management increase fire severity in a multi-ownership landscape”

by Harold S. J. Zald and Christopher J. Dunn

Many studies have examined how fuels, topography, climate, and fire weather influence fire severity. Less is known about how different forest management practices influence fire severity in multi-owner landscapes, despite costly and controversial suppression of wildfires that do not acknowledge ownership boundaries. Zald and Dunn discuss their research and findings using the 2013 Douglas Complex Fire.