Not fiery enough: Why the modern era of large wildfires in eastern Oregon and Washington actually needs more fire

Dr. Daniel Donato

Natural Resource Scientist, Washington Department of Natural Resources

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Daniel Donato is a Natural Resource Scientist with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, School of Environmental and Forest Science. He conducts research and monitoring on disturbances and structural development of forests across Washington state. Daniel has been studying what he calls “mayhem in the forest” (fire, wind, bugs) in the Pacific Northwest and beyond for about 25 years. When he is not chasing wildfires, he can usually be found seeking the wildest places in the PNW, chasing elk around the hills, dipping an oar in the water, or carving out his homestead in the forest.     

Headshot of Daniel Donato in the forest

Wildfires and fire seasons are commonly cast as good or bad based largely on the simple metric of area burned (more acres = bad). A seemingly paradoxical narrative frames large fire seasons as a symptom of a forest health problem (too much fire), while simultaneously stating that fire-dependent forests lack sufficient fire to maintain system resilience (too little fire). One key to resolving this paradox is placing contemporary fire years in the context of historical fire regimes, considering not only total fire area but also how severely the fires burn. Historical regimes can also inform forest restoration efforts by illuminating how much fire area historically maintained (i.e., ‘treated’) fire-resilient landscapes. In this talk I compare modern wildfire years in eastern Oregon and Washington to historical rates of burning (prior to widespread Euro-American arrival). Contrary to the common narrative of unprecedented or too-much fire in our dry forest landscapes today, modern fire years are only burning a small fraction of a typical historical year, when hundreds of thousands of acres burned annually on average. With current forest restoration efforts also occurring at a fraction of historical fire ‘treatment’ rates, these findings highlight the potential need for managed fire to contribute if restoration and maintenance are to ultimately succeed. As such, ‘good’ fire years may be those not with less, but rather more, area burned – with characteristic severity and patch distributions, minimal clearly-negative impacts (e.g. loss of life and property), and contribution to forest restoration and maintenance objectives.