Building Fire-Resistant Green Space

Photo: Kent Contreras, US Forest Service

By Ashira Morris, ODP Contributing Writer

Earlier this fall, when the Almeda Fire tore through southern Oregon, the Bear Creek Greenway became a tunnel of flames. The 20 miles of leafy bike path propelled the fire from one city at the southern end of the trail into the suburbs in a town more than halfway down the path. Because the fire crossed through multiple towns with different vegetation management strategies, it also provides a look into the most effective way to plan for fire-resistant green spacesAs Next City reports, restored native ecosystems “burned at a much lower intensity, making [the fire] less destructive, less dangerous to fight, and slower to spread into adjacent neighborhoods.” 

Why This Matters: Because of climate change, fires are becoming bigger and more intense, as this year devastatingly showed. In Oregon alone, fires in 2020 destroyed more than 4,000 homes and burned through twice as much land as previous years, ProPublica reported“Climate change is pouring gas on everything,” Chris Chambers, Wildfire Division Chief at Ashland Fire and Rescue told Next City. “Things are getting drier and drier, and the window of opportunity for fires to burn is getting longer and longer every year.”  Land management must now plan long-term for the more intense fires to come, and native plant restoration could help make those outbreaks less destructive.

More Logging Doesn’t Mean Less Fire

While a healthy native ecosystem is a proven way to slow the spread of fire, cutting down more trees is not. An analysis by ProPublic and Oregon Public Broadcasting found that despite decades of the logging industry promoting themselves as the solution, fires were just as intense in private forests with heavy logging as they were on federal land with more trees. Despite the lack of evidence, the state’s own Wildfire Response Council — led by a former timber investor — is recommending Oregon spend billions of dollars over the next two decades on thinning forests.

“The belief people have is that somehow or another we can thin our way to low-intensity fire that will be easy to suppress, easy to contain, easy to control. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Jack Cohen, a retired U.S. Forest Service scientist, told ProPublica and OP.  What the state learned from the fire as it moved through Ashland was that the more resilient sections of the forest were where the Lomakatsi Restoration Project, a local nonprofit, had partnered with the city to restore ecological function and healthy waterways. The organization clears out invasive Himalayan blackberries to make room for a diversity of native plants. As it turns out, the native ecosystem is the most fire resilient.

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