Special report: Wildfires are not all bad

Among benefits: healthier landscape, ecosystem; economic boost

Special Report: Fires not all bad

BEND, Ore. - Words like "catastrophic" or "devastating" are commonly associated with the term "wildfire," but it's time that changed to some degree, because Oregon has a fire-dependent ecosystem.

Pete Caligiuri, ecologist at the Nature Conservancy, says, "It's not a question of if fire will happen, it's when fire will happen."

Sisters District Ecologist Maret Pajutee agrees: "They're part of the cycle of life."

From the crest of the Cascades that see up to 140 inches of annual rainfall, to the drier parts of the High Desert that receive only about 15 inches.

"Fire has played a very different role in those systems, but regardless, it's critical to maintaining the resilience and health of the forest," Caligiur saidi.

Which is something that takes years to see.

"Compared to a tree, a person has a pretty short lifespan," Pajutee said. And Caligiuri agrees: "An image of our forest, based on what we see around us, that oftentimes is based on a relatively short time frame -- only 30, 40, maybe 50 years."

In the last decade, fire suppression has improved significantly-- which is both good and bad news.

"Our forests are adapted to fire -- the behavior, the role, the influence of fire has changed dramatically over the last 100 years," Caligiuri explained.

Things like prescribed burns are crucial to keep communities safe and thriving.

Project Wildfire spokeswoman Alison Green said, "It's much better to deal with annoying smoke from prescribed fire for two or three days, than the city of Sisters loosing revenue because of the smoke from the Bridge 99 Complex."

Caligiuri agrees.

"That's also consistent with other things that Central Oregonians care about," he said. "Mountain bike trails, wildlife that are dependent on fire -- a whole host of aesthetics and recreation and economy based on tourism."  

That tourism is based around our beautiful landscape, and fires keep that landscape beautiful ... eventually. The B&B Complex that roared across nearly 100,000 acres a decade ago left behind a burn scar, but the ecosystem has bounced back, as Pajutee explained: "You go to those forests and they are absolutely full of life."

As time goes by and the more wildfires we study, the more we learn. So that next time, we can protect and improve the landscape of Central Oregon.

"We'll never eliminate these fires," Caligiuri said. "In fact, we don't want to, because we are fire-adapted, but we will mitigate the chances of high-severity fire."

Most experts wanted to stress how crucial prescribed burns are to our ecosystem. They urged the public to be more understanding, so we can better protect our communities and keep our landscape healthy.

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