Canyon Creek Complex fire (copy)

Oregon Department of Transportation workers fell fire-damaged trees along Highway 395 as firefighters work to contain the Canyon Creek Complex fire near John Day in mid-August.

Thomas Boyd, Associated Press (File)

You might have a vague memory of the devastating wildfires of 1988 in Yellowstone National Park. The fires made news throughout the world and were spectacular (and terrifying) to behold.

The fires burned through 800,000 acres, about a third of the park. They came close to destroying two historic destinations, including the visitors' center at Old Faithful. Property damage at the time was estimated at about $3 million. People said the park would never be the same.

And it wasn't. But a different Yellowstone emerged, literally from the ashes.

People were astonished the following year as the park's wildlands began to bounce back with remarkable speed. From devastation, new life emerged — just as it has every time a major fire has burned through the park. In fact, the 1988 Yellowstone blazes offered confirmation that some ecosystems are specially adapted to wildfire.

We were reminded of the Yellowstone fires when we happened to hear a recent interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud" program with Steve Beverlin, the supervisor of the Malheur National Forest, the site of 2015's Canyon Creek Fire.

Although it didn't burn on the scale of the Yellowstone fires, the Canyon Creek blaze was a bad one, by any measure: It burned nearly 40,000 acres and was among Oregon's most destructive wildfires in terms of property damage. More than 40 homes were destroyed and more than 50 structures suffered at least some damage.

But these days, Beverlin told OPB, the forest is showing signs of remarkable recovery, just like Yellowstone, although he was careful to note that the level of recovery hinges to some degree on how hot the fire burned in various parts of the forest.

In general, Beverlin said, the fire burned with a high intensity in about a third of the area affected. In the remainder of the affected area, the fire burned with a medium or low intensity. Obviously, the areas where the fire burned with a medium or low intensity are rebounding quicker, but there are signs of life throughout all the scorched area.

People working on rehabilitation efforts did have to worry about the possibility of flooding and erosion in areas that had been badly burned, Beverlin noted, but a cooperative effort among the agencies and landowners involved was helpful in that regard.

But the overall message here is fairly clear, and it's the same message that we learned from the Yellowstone fires: As long as we have forests and lightning (or, for that matter, misguided 15-year-olds armed with smoke bombs), we'll have fires in our forests. Smoke from those fires will be a frequent occurrence throughout the West. There isn't any way to avoid that. 

But the fact is that many of these fires are not disastrous events for our forests. In fact, the occasional low- or medium-intensity fire plays an important role in those ecosystems. And we have a much broader idea today of the role fire plays in our forests and how the land bounces back.

Of course, there is still an important role for firefighters to play in these fires in terms of protecting human structures and keeping a watchful eye over the blazes.

With that said, however, we need to pay attention to what we can do today to forestall at least some of these high-intensity infernos that we see too frequently these days.

Too many of our national forests, starved for maintenance dollars, are filled with the sort of undergrowth that fuels these blazes. That's part of the reason why each fire season seems to burn hotter than the one before. And yet, we continue to shortchange programs devoted to the very maintenance that can help prevent a low-intensity fire from becoming an inferno.

Our forests keep demonstrating their resiliency in the face of wildfire. And every time that happens, it's a lesson about the delicate dance between wildfire, forests and humans. (mm)


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