Medford-Jackson County Chamber of Commerce
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“To let fires burn in July and August is ridiculous.” — Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus in the New York Times, Sept. 22, 1988

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Rich Fairbanks walks a forest trail through a stretch where two wildfires have burned in the last six years. The ground is mostly bare, and the tree trunks are striped with black, scorched bark. Fairbanks has worked for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter and as a wilderness advocate. He is thrilled by all this. He points up at the green crowns of the trees with delight.
“Some beautiful hardwoods in here!” He exclaims. “Look at those canyon live oaks – really nice! They all made it.”
Last summer, the woods were on fire to the right of this trail in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, which straddles southwestern Oregon and northern California. But the flames died out soon after crossing the path – when they reached a part of the forest that had already burned in 2012. The old fire had taken out all the plants and brush that would have served as fuel.
“What they had was a very gentle kind of fire,” Fairbanks said. “It just all around was a good fire in many ways.” This may sound like an odd way to talk at a time when catastrophic wildfires are burning throughout the arid West, literally causing death, widespread destruction and choking smoke that hangs like a funeral shroud over many communities. The Miller Complex Fire burned in Southern Oregon and Northern California in 2017. The fire killed some trees, but also left many trees alive.
About this story: We want to be transparent about how we reported this. Click here to learn more. But a variety of forest experts say that one of the best ways to reduce the threat of these mega-blazes is to use fire itself. They say we need to increase the pace of prescribed fire and let some wildfires continue to burn when it’s safe to do so. Of course, there’s not nearly as much political support for letting fires burn as there is for putting fires out. “Our knowledge of fire proceeds forward, and there’s always a lag between what we know and what the general public understands,” Fairbanks said. “And even lagging behind that is what the politicians are willing to act on.” The Politics Of A Smoky Future John Bailey, a forestry professor and fire expert at Oregon State University, said contrary to what Smokey Bear and the U.S. Forest Service once told us, “there is no smoke-free future” in western U.S. forests. We either use fire as a tool to help clear out the dense undergrowth, he said, or we wait for it to be done by explosive wildfires driven by the worst weather conditions. “If you make me king and I’m able to control the future,” Bailey said, “I’ll burn thousands of acres at a time. Just burning hundreds of acres isn’t going to get us ahead of this program. It’s still going to leave wildfire doing most of the work.” 
“Our knowledge of fire proceeds forward, and there’s always a lag between what we know and what the general public understands,” Fairbanks said. “And even lagging behind that is what the politicians are willing to act on.”
LEGISLATIVE NEWS
Former U.S. Forest Service employee and firefighter Rich Fairbanks points out the many trees that survived the Miller Complex Fire in 2017. Cassandra Profita/OPB/EarthFix
The Miller Complex Fire burned in Southern Oregon and Northern California in 2017. The fire killed some trees, but also left many trees alive. Cassandra Profita/OPB/EarthFix
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In practice, that’s harder to carry out, in part because politicians who represent fire-prone regions are reluctant to tell their smoke-weary constituents that there sometimes needs to be more fire in the forest.
“Our members of Congress know that overall the public doesn’t like to breathe smoke,” said Andy Stahl, who heads the Eugene-based Forest Service Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “The public doesn’t like to feel threatened. The public thinks firefighters are heroes, and they want the fires put out.” Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, represents eastern and southern Oregon. He is well-versed on wildfire issues.  He said  fire can indeed be “a management tool when appropriately applied.” But in an interview with OPB, the Republican lawmaker was quick to raise several caution flags. “We’re a long way from being ready to just say, ‘Oh, we can do prescribed burns throughout the forest. Let ‘er burn,’” Walden said.  “I don’t think that makes a lot of sense.”  
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington is the top Democrat on the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and she’s introduced legislation that includes a bigger role for prescribed fire. However, she was quick to raise concerns about the practice as well. 

“To me, one of the key issues in thinking about prescribed burn is that in hotter, drier conditions you have to be very careful,” Cantwell said. “There probably are some examples where people thought they could do prescribed burn … and what they found is it got out of hand really quickly because of those weather conditions.”

Some key members of Congress would simply like to avoid the subject. U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has been one of the most visible legislators on wildfire issues. He’s urged the Forest Service to beef up its fleet of aerial tankers, and he worked hard to revamp the agency’s budget to provide more money for fire prevention.

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John Bailey in his lab at Oregon State University.
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