By John Rizza and Emily Jane Davis, Oregon State University Extension
The health and function of many of Oregon’s forest ecosystems have historically been driven by and supported with fire. The warming and drying climate conditions observed in recent years are adding to the likelihood of severe, large-scale disturbances. The data and literature suggest that wildfires, along with insects and disease issues, are altering the landscape at an accelerated rate (Schimel et al., 2021). After nearly two centuries of decreased fire frequency, our landscapes have accumulated heavy fuel loads that are increasingly likely to feed very large fires. The fire effects are also becoming more severe, which is contributing to the decline in the health of these valuable landscapes. Prescribed fire, an important tool for reinstating fire’s beneficial role in these landscapes, is challenging to implement. To address some of these barriers to prescribed fire use, efforts are underway in Oregon that take a new approach.
Oregon State University’s (OSU) Extension Fire program helps facilitate partnerships working to make landscapes more resilient to wildfire. As we built these relationships, we heard from our partners that there is a crucial need for more educational opportunities focused on prescribed fire. Prescribed burning, also called controlled burning, is the practice of planning and implementing intentional burns to achieve desired outcomes. It requires matching the right weather and environmental conditions with appropriate implementation methods to produce beneficial fire effects on the land. Historically, fire has been an integral component to Oregon’s ecosystems, but is currently lacking in many landscapes, increasing the likelihood of detrimental impacts when fires do occur. John Weir, an Extension Specialist at Oklahoma State University and advisor to the NRCS, succinctly describes the situation: “Within the majority of current NRCS Ecological Site Descriptions fire is listed as a driver of the native plant communities. The lack of fire and its importance in maintaining healthy soils, forests, and grasslands is evident across the U.S.” (Weir, 2019). Fire adapted landscapes that are managed with prescribed burning can be more resilient to damaging wildfires.
In many areas in the Pacific Northwest there is a need to reintroduce fire into appropriate, receptive landscapes to increase the resilience before a wildfire strikes. On private lands, the USDA-NRCS is a leader in technical and financial assistance for land owners and managers. However, in Oregon, NRCS was lacking regionally specific training opportunities that would enable their personnel to work with landowners to promote the safe and effective use of prescribed fire across the state. In response to this need, we—OSU’s Extension Fire Program and Forestry and Natural Resources Extension Program—partnered with the Oregon Department of Forestry to develop a foundational prescribed fire awareness training for these conservation professionals. The goal of this awareness training is to help NRCS planners determine when to recommend prescribed fire as a conservation practice that addresses specific resource concerns, and to provide them with the tools to do so. Although this introductory training does not allow a planner to write burn plans, it does enable them to help plan agreements involving prescribed fire, and burn plans developed by other professionals under these agreements are then eligible for NRCS funding.
In designing the training, we considered what depth and breadth of information would be most crucial to NRCS professionals, and what format would be most engaging. The result was a three-day event in late October that covered key topics such as reasons for prescribed burning, ecological effects of fire, fuels, fire behavior, weather and fire, ignition and combustion, and smoke management. We combined classroom time, outdoor field instruction and demonstration of tools, live burning of two large slash piles and a small broadcast burn created in the slash from a variable tree retention harvesting operation. Fifteen NRCS attendees representing diverse ecological and social settings from Oregon’s northeastern Blue Mountains to the agricultural Willamette Valley participated. In addition to its educational aspects, the training was a venue to build relationships and share knowledge about working with private landowners, developing all-lands partnerships, and more. This in-person camaraderie was especially welcomed given the lack of such opportunities during the pandemic.
As a result of this event, landowners and managers now have additional tools available to assist in implementation of diverse conservation practices that will help native systems be more resilient to wildfire and future changes in climate. This awareness training also helped set the foundation for future opportunities to collectively promote prescribed fire implementation and provide a network that supports our partners across the state. For those of us at OSU Extension, this was more than just an opportunity to teach; it was an opportunity to learn about how we can best meet educational needs while also overcoming broader barriers to ensuring our landscapes are healthy and adaptable to future wildfires.
Schimel, David S., Corley, Juan C. 2021 Climate change and western wildfires. Ecological Applications. 31:8. 1051-0761. doi: 10.1002/eap.2452
Weir, John. 2019. How can the NRCS get more Prescribed Fire on the Ground? 10.13140/RG.2.2.25716.71043.