It’s all too easy to do Monday morning quarter backing as to what should have been done. The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area is a complex mosaic of ownership and management responsibilities. The 292,500 acre land base includes wilderness, state parks and national forest lands and about 50 percent of the scenic area in private ownership. Management of scenic area lands is divided between the U.S. Forest Service, Columbia River Gorge Commission, counties and state and federal agencies such as State Parks and Bonneville Power Administration.
Could more intensive management of scenic area forests have stopped or slowed the fire’s spread? That is debatable and not at all sure. Commercial timber harvesting is not allowed in much of the scenic area. Much of the land in the fire area is extremely steep with erosive soils. There are miles of trails on these lands that get high usage. There are many private homes. Some people living in forested settings in the Gorge want trees close to their homes for privacy, enjoying the forest setting and they do not want to cut trees. No one can force them to cut their trees.
What can be done to lessen the severity and likelihood of these types of wildfires? Where terrain permits, thinning could be done to create a more open and fire-resistant forest stand. Thinnings should remove only small trees and leave large fire-resistant trees with thicker bark. Done sensitively and with a light hand, tree harvesting could be done in areas away from developed recreation sites like Multnomah Falls, campgrounds, picnic areas and trails. While agencies such as the U. S. Forest Service would design and manage this work, support would be needed from the public and organizations as Friends of the Columbia Gorge. But a major caveat to doing any forest management is that much of the Gorge is just too steep to allow timber harvesting even with helicopters. And the Gorge is so loved by the public that timber harvesting would be very controversial.
Around homes, “Firewise” techniques could be used to create more fire-resistant settings. The Firewise program includes measures as thinning trees, removing branches overhanging roofs, using fire retardant building materials and creating a driveway that allows firefighting vehicles to safely get to the house. Assistance to homeowners is available from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the U. S. Forest Service on a voluntary basis.
Even doing some of these techniques, the reality is that there will be times when major wildfires occur. A combination of human carelessness, long dry summers coupled with strong winds, exacerbated by long term climate change trends will result in these types of wildfire incidents no matter what is done to try to prevent them. We need to support land management agencies, especially right now while they are doing their best to contain the wildfire. Having been on the fire recently, I’ve seen that the burn intensity is quite variable, the Gorge will recover. As fire Incident Commander Shawn Sheldon said at a Hood River public meeting, ”All fires go out.” And the Columbia River Gorge, our national treasure will continue to be a landscape beloved by us and a home to all the creatures that live there.
Jurgen Hess, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, was acting area manager of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. A photographer, he gives presentations on wildfires, including Firewise techniques.