Wildfire season may be creeping to a close in northeast Oregon, but the fallout is just beginning to ramp up in Washington, D.C.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), will hold a hearing Wednesday examining the impacts of large fires on air quality, releasing massive amounts of particulate matter and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
“Year after year, catastrophic wildfires rage on federal lands, including parts of my district, and our skies are choked with smoke throughout the West,” Walden said during a Sept. 13 House committee hearing. “Air quality issues in my home state continue to rise to dangerous levels because of these fires, forcing cancellations of community events, school closures and lost tourism dollars.”
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality maintains 35 air particulate monitors statewide, including one in Pendleton. Between July 1 and Sept. 6, the local air quality index was listed as “moderate” for 13 days, “unhealthy for sensitive groups” for five days, “unhealthy” for one day and “very unhealthy” for one day.
Thick smoke blanketed the area from fires as far away as Montana and Canada, in addition to a rash of infernos around the state, such as the 48,573-acre Eagle Creek fire near Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge. All together, wildfires have torched burned nearly 8.5 million acres in 2017 — about 2.5 million acres more than the most recent 10-year average. In Oregon, the area burned totaled 678,000 acres.
Compare that total to 2015, when Oregon experienced 685,809 acres of wildfire. According to a Forest Service report, those blazes emitted 90,341 tons of fine particulates and 14.2 million tons of greenhouse gases, equal to more than 3 million passenger cars driving for one year or the annual energy use of 1.3 million homes.
Greg Svelund, spokesman for DEQ, said the agency is concerned about the health impacts of wildfire smoke in communities, especially for sensitive groups such as children, the elderly and those with heart or lung disease.
“There’s a lot of particulate that goes up in these fires. That’s concerning,” Svelund said. “There is a tendency to think of smoke as a way of life in Oregon ... This actually is a leading risk factor for premature death.”
Wednesday’s hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee will feature a panel including John Bailey, a professor of silviculture and fire management at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Bailey said he plans to discuss the growing length of severity of fire seasons with lawmakers.
“We have a historic amount of fuel out there on the landscape,” Bailey said. “It’s been a major change relative to the past, and how these forests have evolved.”
In some cases, Bailey said fire season has been extended by 30-60 days across parts of the West. The first step is to recognize that the current system of management is not working, he said, and more work is needed to treat densely overgrown forests.
“You can’t reach any other logical conclusion that these types of (fire) years are only going to continue,” Bailey said. “That’s what’s going to be creating more air quality problems.”
Walden recently advocated for the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, which passed the House Committee on Natural Resources in June and contains provisions to accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration projects, including tree thinning and logging.
Opponents criticize the bill as nothing more than an effort to maximize the profits of logging companies, while undermining national environmental review laws and eliminating rights under the Equal Access to Justice Act, which allows plaintiffs suing the government to recover their attorney fees.
George Wuerthner, an author and conservationist who lives in Bend, warns the bill might actually lend itself to making forests less resilient to fire, with increased tree harvest exposing the forests to more extreme fire weather.
“When you do the thinning in particular, you open up the forest to more sunlight,” he said. “It also makes it easier for the wind to penetrate.”
Wuerthner, who used to work for both the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in Idaho, said the majority of acreage burned comes from relatively few fires under red flag fire conditions. Without changing the climate and weather, he is not optimistic about having much influence on curtailing larger fires.
It is also well established that logging roads are a chronic source of sedimentation in streams that negatively affects native fish, Wuerthner added. He said landowners can protect their homes by doing some light thinning and fuel reduction on their property, though doing a fuel reduction 30 miles from the nearest town “doesn’t make much sense.”
Walden said he is looking forward to hearing more from the panel Wednesday on what they can do about the fire situation moving forward.
“Enough is enough. It’s time that decisions about when and how to fight these fires takes into account the impact they have on air quality and human health,” Walden said.
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0825.