A century of fire suppression has left our forests wildly out of balance. And climate change is only making things worse.

Wildfires are becoming more intense, burning larger areas, threatening communities and producing more smoke. Science tells us that the best way to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire is to restore our forests to their natural state with controlled or prescribed burns.

Prescribed Fire Reduces Catastrophic Wildfire Risk The Nature Conservancy supports the proven science of carefully controlled burns at the right place and the right time, keeping our communities safe, preserving habitats, protecting our natural resources, and ensuring that our forests will remain healthy.

Why Are Wildfires Getting Worse?

For more than a century,  people have removed fire's natural role in our forests by suppressing natural fires. This has thrown our forests out of balance and caused an abundance of overgrowth. When wildfires occur in overgrown forests, they are larger and more intense and put plants, animals, and communities at risk. Hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change are drying out overgrowth and making forests more flammable.

What Can We Do?

The science is clear. Controlled—or prescribed—burns combined with ecological thinning are a proven way to restore Oregon’s dry forests. By managing the natural process of fire on the landscape, instead of preventing it, we can improve habitats for native plants and animals and reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires.

 

By thinning the forest understory, we can safely reintroduce fire as a restorative process. Fire suppressed forest on left. Ecologically thinned forest on right.
Ecologically Managed Forests By thinning the forest understory, we can safely reintroduce fire as a restorative process. Fire suppressed forest on left. Ecologically thinned forest on right. © TNC

What Happens in a Fire-Suppressed Forest? 

In a western dry forest that has been denied the benefits of fire, large and small trees grow in close proximity. Vegetation and other debris are crowded on the forest floor and becomes fuel for wildfires.

Because of this fuel, wildfires burn much hotter and are able to move from the ground up into the tree and consume it. This causes historically resilient trees to die. It will take decades of regrowth to see the large trees become valuable to wildlife and carbon storage again. The intense heat from the fire also changed the soil, making it more likely to erode into streams.

What is an Ecologicially Managed Forest?

Controlled burning, paired with ecological thinning, results in forests with minimal vegetation and growth on the forest floor,  leaving less fuel for wildfires. This forest has adequate space between large trees that prevents wildfire from moving from the ground to the tree canopy.

After a wildifre, the majority of trees are scarred at their trunks, but remain alive. The ground is covered with a mix of soil and ash, with a few snags for wildlife. This forest can regrow and withstand future wildfires, thus holding on to its carbon capture and ecological benefits. Future wildfires can also be safely managed if they threaten human communities.

How does a controlled burn work?

Controlled burns mimic natural fires. They are strategically designed by a team of fire experts and only occur under the safest conditions. Ecological thinning often takes place before a burn to optimize outcomes.

Where and when do we burn?

Controlled burns are conducted where there is the greatest need for forest restoration and the biggest risk of out-of-control wildfire. They are directed in a way that is safe, controlled, and aligned with the values all Oregonians care about, such as clean air. Burning occurs during the spring and fall, when conditions and the many variables are just right. 

 

Forest regrowth after a fire in Sweet Home, OR. This photo was entered into The Nature Conservancy's 2018 Photo Contest.
Forest regrowth in Oregon Forest regrowth after a fire in Sweet Home, OR. This photo was entered into The Nature Conservancy's 2018 Photo Contest. © Cindy Christina