Photo by Ellen Miller

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dollar Lake: Understanding the full costs of wildfire

Published: Saturday, September 24, 2011, 8:56 AM
Guest Columnist By Bob Zybach

Two years ago, The Oregonian printed a column I wrote that summarized a paper written and published online by three coauthors and myself. The piece, titled "The Real Cost of Wildfires," reported our findings that large-scale wildfires in the US typically result in ten to 50 times more costs and damages than suppression costs:

That is, forest wildfires in the US have typically cost US citizens $50 billion to $100 billion – or more – annually for the past several years.

dollarfire.sept.10.11.JPGThe Dollar Lake fire.
If the Dollar Lake Fire had reached (or does reach) the BPA transmission lines or the Bull Run watershed, it will easily cause significantly more damage than just its suppression costs. Such damages can be readily understood by people in Texas, Arizona, San Diego, and Sisters, Oregon, that have had first hand experiences with property damage, polluted air, degraded soils, personal health problems, destroyed wildlife habitat and other problems caused by forest wildfires.

Ken Snell, the USFS regional director of fire, fuels, and aviation management was quoted by The Oregonian as saying "a large fire on the Bull Run will come in time." Snell is correct. Whether that time is ten days or ten years from now, it is a certainty. Annual growth in the forested watershed leads to a continuous increase in fuels that must either be managed by people or else consumed by flames. Those are the only options, and since fuel management was legally halted in the Bull Run more than 10 years ago, that leaves only fire to clean up the mess.

Two weeks ago, on Sept. 7, one of my co-authors, Mike Dubrasich, and I presented the same paper to the Oregon Board of Forestry in Lakeview. The Dollar Lake fire was part of the resulting discussion. Our point was that an economic analysis of potential wildfire losses is best made before these predictable events occur, so that affected communities, landowners, foresters and wildfire managers can make better-informed decisions when they do take place.

The focus of our paper is a one-page checklist of possible costs and damages associated with wildfires. Anyone can use this checklist to consider the harm that will be done when wildfire ultimately does affect BPA's power transmissions and Portland's water supplies.

One can hope the Dollar Lake fire will become a wake-up call to Portland residents who value fresh water, clean air, cheap electricity, native wildlife and forest recreational opportunities that are being degraded or put at risk by current forest and wildfire management policies. Our checklist provides a good first step in considering these values and the types of actions that can be taken to protect them for ourselves and for future generations.

Bob Zybach writes from Cottage Grove.


  1. Comments from The Oregonian's online posting of Bob Zybach's OpEd.

    luddness September 24, 2011 at 11:23AM

    Mr. Zybach presents us with an 'either-or' scenario: "Annual growth in the forested watershed leads to a continuous increase in fuels that must either be managed by people or else consumed by flames."

    Although fuels certainly do accumulate in forests, in wild, "unmanaged" forests west of the Cascade Mountains, fuels lying on the forest floor decompose, and for the most part remain damp. That's why fire cycles in westside forests occur over a much longer time period than the drier eastside forests.

    Likewise, these fires are generally not huge conflagrations due to the damp fuels. Thus, the compulsion to "manage" all forests with logging or prescribed (deliberately set) burns is exaggerated. There is a middle ground, wherein we can thin some already-managed forests and do some prescribed burns in others.

    But the "manage, or it's all going up in flames" philosophy is not only draconian, but untrue. And the reality is, no matter how much management we do, when there is severe drought accompanied by lightning, there will be large fires and there's nothing that we can do to prevent them.

    The "manage-it-all" crowd have left us with the simplistic equation that the more we log, the less fire we'll have. That's obviously ridiculous, as it leaves us with the ultimate resolution: take out all the trees and there will be no fire. Let's find some middle ground.

    entishman September 24, 2011 at 2:38PM

    The Forest Service and the BLM have already set up "Maximum Management Areas" of up to 100,000 acres in size, where ignitions of any sort will be "monitored". You say you don't know where your local MMA's are?!?! Well, that is because the Feds have not run their Let-Burn program through the scrutiny of formal NEPA analysis and process, including public involvement. Do you think they surveyed for threatened and endangered species?

    Do you think they have modified fuels in any way? Do you think they have firelines already in place? Do you think they have done required cultural surveys? Botanical surveys? Watershed cumulative effects?

    Once a fire starts, there is very little time to decide whether to suppress the fire, according to conditions, or to let-er rip. Of course, we're trusting fire people, often without college degrees, to set the destiny of hundreds of square miles, for hundreds of years. Sadly, my trust in them, to do the right thing, is very low.

  2. Bob Zybach's retort:
    bobzybach September 24, 2011 at 1:29PM

    luddness: I was going to try and refrain from entering discussions of my own editorial, but you always seem to make statements that make me want to get involved. I'll try and restrain myself after these comments, but promise nothing.

    The focus of my PhD studies at OSU was historic catastrophic-scale wildfires that occurred west of the Cascades in Oregon: the so-called "Great Fires" of the past 250 years. These are some of the largest, most intense, and most severe fires in history, including the Tillamook "6-Year Jinx" Fires of 1933-1951; the Yaquina, Coos, and Nestucca Fires of 1849-1861; the precontact Millicoma Fire of ca. 1770; and the various complexes of 1883-1918. The idea that westside fuels simply "rot" is just not true. They are either mostly used (or limited) by people, or they mostly burn -- and with mostly negative consequences to people, wildlife, air, soil, and water.

    My "either-or" position is that forests -- and fires -- can either be managed passively (the decision to do nothing, or to "let nature take its course") or actively. There is no middle ground on these options. Our forests are products of thousands of years of active management, during which time logging was done on a very limited basis for almost all of those years. You are reading way too much into what I have written, and you are basing your statements on a misunderstanding of documented westside forest and fire history.

    bobzybach September 24, 2011 at 1:35PM

    Typo: should be "the Yaquina, Coos, and Nestucca Fires of 1849-1868" -- although some have argued for an earlier 1845 or 1846 date on the Nestucca and 1846 or 1848 on the first Yaquina.

  3. Try this link to The Oregonian's Website for a continuation of the above discussion: