The public lands of Oregon are choked with growth, fire experts say. In Eastern Oregon, dense stands of young trees compete for a finite supply of nourishment in the arid climes of the high desert.
The struggle leaves them weak, fodder for bark beetles. The trunks of dead trees, cooked to a crackling husk by dry summer days, litter the forest ground.
“The forest is growing and the mortality rate is increasing,” said Stephen Fitzgerald, a professor of forestry working at the Oregon State University extension in Redmond. “And the amount we’re removing is only a fraction of what’s dying.”
A typical forest should have between 60 and 100 trees per acre, but there are forests that have between 800 to 1,000 trees per acre, said Dave Schott, executive vice president of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association.
Lacking the resources to thin the escalating growth, and with timber harvests stymied by a fear of environmental lawsuits and a decreasing market, land management agencies are struggling to keep their forests healthy.
“Thirteen million acres of what are considered frequent-fire forests in Oregon are at a moderate or severe risk to lose key ecological components,” said Kevin Birch, director of forest resources planning at the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Studies show we’re only treating 1 to 2 percent of that annually.”
The budgets are also shrinking. The U.S. Forest Service’s total fire budget dropped by 6.3 percent this year, from $2.3 billion in 2011 to $2.16 billion.
With the right conditions — a drought or heat wave — millions of acres of forest clogged with layers of vegetation that provide a clear burn path toward the canopy become a tinder box ready to ignite.
“At some point it will burn, and it won’t burn the way it did historically, or the way we would like things to burn,” Fitzgerald said.
Kevin Birch, director of forest resources planning at the Oregon Department of Forestry said, “It’s not a question of if it burns, but when.”