Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 10.4.07

Primed for Disaster
How can we prepare for the coming fires?

A grass fire that jumped into the woods and threatened homes near Fern Ridge was recently headlined in The Register-Guard. Apart from media sensationalism, there was an element of reality behind the front page flames. Cooler weather has dampened our fire consciousness, but people affected by this fire are taking measures to reduce risk in the inevitably hotter, dryer, breezier days to come.

Citizens and park ecologists look at core samples showing severe pine growth decline due to crowding and moisture stress. Photo Roy Keene

Largely the result of systematic fire suppression and overplanting, our crowded urban forests are primed for dysfunction and ignition. From the top of Spencer’s Butte, stressed old trees are visible throughout the conflagration-ripe forestscape. Shade-intolerant native oaks and pines that thrived in open pre-Euro conditions created by frequent low-intensity fires are dying out due to pressure from unchecked younger trees and undergrowth. With or without human intervention, this overly dense forest will likely reset itself. If by wildfire, homes and heritage trees will be at great risk.

The Berkeley Hills (Calif.) community, warned often by foresters and firefighters about the crowded condition of their forest, took the gamble of “Let’s leave it alone.” In 1991 a wind-driven fire did a billion and a half dollars of damage, ravishing 1,600 acres and 3,800 homes and killing 25 people. Months before, at a Bay Area forestry meeting, I toured these hills with Gordon Robinson, then Sierra Club’s venerable forester. Pointing out deadend streets overloaded with brush and trees, he muttered “No chance for people or forest.” Unfortunately, his unheeded prophecy was fulfilled.

For 20 years I’ve designed and participated in private and public thinning and fuel reduction projects at varying scales and forest types, including Eugene’s south hills. The timber industry damned me for not being one of theirs and promoting something less than clearcutting As Native Forest Councils forester, I was criticized by many environmentalists for violating Zero Cut’s tenant. Still, sites I worked on and revisited are healthier — less stressed, more diverse and distinctly more fire resistant. When the forest breathes easier, that’s thanks enough.

Prudently honest thinning and fuel reduction projects are still being criticized by environmentalists. A park land project on Spencer Butte’s south slope designed to release scarce oak and pine habitat from suppression-induced encroachment was stymied by the South Hills Association. Ironically, their spokesperson lives in an overgrown site adjacent to the project area at the end of a narrow, fuel loaded deadend road. As in the Berkeley Hills, he and his neighbors could easily be fire trapped. Meanwhile, they get to watch the old oaks die.


During a 2002 wildfire, the Forest Service lit back fires that burned across a Siskiyou National Forest inholding I’ve been connected with for 30 years. We had thinned to maintain diversity and big trees, kept grasses and berries cut low, fuels burned and scattered, perimeter trails scarified, and put in a pump truck-accessible pond. Our work and, yes, our prayers, saved cabins and most of the 20 acres from the Biscuit Fire.

What Biscuit clearly illustrated on less fortunate sites, however, is that when a big blaze rises up to a hot wind, organic material gets blown away with little regard to distance or density. Thinning, pruning, pre-burning, scarifying and water storage will not guarantee that forests or homes will withstand a firestorm. But timely preparations can dramatically increase the odds for ecological and economic survival. Had my cabin and surroundings been consumed, I might still have rejoiced at the harsh but gracious rebirth the fire gave the forest. But my personal philosophy and a $40,000 structure doesn’t match a south hill family’s half million dollar home with their lives sheltered and archived inside.

So here’s advice to urban forest dwellers from an old woodsman who’s seen and worked in many forests and fires: Care for yourselves and your forests by being prepared. Losing forest diversity, history, resilience and human security to a century of fire suppression, we’re taking huge risks by not taking action.

Roy Keene is a local real estate broker and private timberland restoration specialist.