OREGON—Forests were shaped by wildfires long before humans began managing them. In the Pacific Northwest, a region dominated by forest, fire isn't just an inevitable part of life, it's an essential part of the ecosystem in which we live. Many native forest plants and animals are adapted to—and some even dependent on—fire.
Researchers at the Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station are working to identify what areas are most at risk for severe wildfires so that resource managers can better target fire mitigation strategies where they will have the most impact. This kind of information will help resource managers prioritize and target locations most in need of fuel treatments based on fire risk. It will maximize the effectiveness of fuel treatments to reduce the risk of severe wildfires.
The practice of completely suppressing wildfires has dramatically changed modern forest ecosystems, both wet and dry. Fire suppression in wet forests has reduced the amount of non-forested area, such as meadows, and young, diverse forest. Wet forests no longer exhibit the historical mosaic of tree stands created by infrequent, severe fire.
In dry forests, fire suppression has led to overcrowding by small trees and bushes, leaving lots of leaves and branches littering the ground. Having lots of these fuels on the ground not only feeds fires, it also endangers larger trees that would normally be fire-resistant. Small trees and shrubs can act as fire "ladders," spreading fire to the canopies of large trees that would otherwise have been unharmed by fire on the ground. Such dense fuel conditions, along with warming climate and drought, mean the risk of severe, out-of-control wildfire is very high.
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