The Islands' Sounder
During a pandemic, it can be difficult to prepare for a future disaster. When a crisis exists in our mind rather than our eyes, it is easy for it to fade like smoke on the horizon. But the horizon may be filled with smoke soon this fire season, and fire seasons are predicted to become more severe for San Juan County as we move into a changing climate.
The National Interagency Fire Center predicts Washington and Oregon to have the highest increase in wildfires of anywhere in the country this summer. Washington has already seen nearly triple the number of usual wildfires at this point in our season, a year when it has been difficult to recruit wildland firefighters due to COVID-19. Areas in the Northwest have reported a nearly 25 percent reduction in firefighters, in part due to the difficulty with social distancing in firefighting camps and crews. We could be facing one of our more difficult fire seasons with less capacity to put them out.
When we talk about fighting fire we often think of firefighters, fire trucks, and streams of water putting out the blaze. But what if these massive fires never happened in the first place? When we consider improving the health of our forests as a key strategy to decreasing catastrophic fire we could also imagine our firefighters as our local foresters, arborists, active landowners, and sustainable loggers. Instead of losing the forest, we can recognize that these overstocked stands hold valuable resources for our community and island ecology.
The San Juan Islands Conservation District is working with a network of local forestry organizations in the San Juan County Forest Health Collaborative and our local fire districts to conduct an updated County Community Wildfire Protection Plan. This plan will provide mapping analysis of the forest stands with the greatest need for restoration and tree removal, as well as a series of different research findings on uses for this excess wood. These assessments include examining the role of decomposing and charred wood in our island forest ecosystems in collaboration with Oregon State University, Micro-grid bioenergy and district heating with Wisewood Energy, and the economics of local milling and lumber supply. The Conservation District is taking a holistic approach to examining solutions for our excess biomass because the quantity of material is overwhelming. The last Community Wildfire Protection Plan, written in 2012, estimates that San Juan County has nearly 85,000 acres of forest at moderate or severe need for fire fuel reduction.