Wildfire: For weeks, Darrell Jacobs has been chopping down dead trees in an attempt to save hundreds of acres of woodland that his family lost last summer. The Bootleg Fire blasted through Jacobs’ property near this rural hamlet in southern Oregon, sparing his house but torching a fourth of the forest and killing over 40 livestock.
His family had been ranching the same 3,000 acres since 1881 and had never seen anything like it.
Jacobs remarked, “I haven’t tried to figure out how much it cost, and I probably don’t want to know.” “This is an 80- to 100-year reversal.”
Jacobs, a logger by trade, had long suspected that his family’s land in the dry Klamath Basin was in jeopardy. He had tried to prepare for the Bootleg Fire for years, clearing the forest by removing small trees and underbrush that might quickly turn a small fire into a raging blaze.
The issue, he claimed, was the price. It would have cost more than $1 million to mitigate the danger over the entire site, something only the government could pay.
“It would have saved our ground if we’d done this thinning… and then perhaps had the state come in and conduct underburns and something like that,” he said.
Clearing flammable brush and trash from privately owned forests like Jacobs’ is an important step in preventing significant wildfire devastation to homes, property, and towns, particularly in the arid West.
This type of management is required for hundreds of millions of acres held by more than 10 million families, accounting for roughly 40% of all forest land in the United States. Wildfire fuel reduction, on the other hand, necessitates knowledge, labor, and money. Small landowners require assistance to accomplish this.
State governments safeguard state properties, while the federal government reduces risk in national forests, parks, and other federally controlled territories. Both attempt to assist private landowners in doing so, but the initiatives aren’t large or well-funded enough to meet the need.
The main federal forest stewardship assistance program only reaches around 10% of the most at-risk area each year, and the largest grant program has to turn away the majority of applicants.
Even a projected influx of several billion dollars from state governments and the Biden administration, according to fire and forestry specialists, will not be enough or arrive quickly enough. To prepare for future wildfires, a higher ramp-up is required as the temperature warms and the number of people living in dense forests grows.
“It’s a major financial issue,” said Jason Pettigrew, an Oregon Department of Forestry stewardship forester who is counseling Jacobs on how to prepare for the next fire. “The level of effort and equipment required for this type of activity is much beyond the capabilities of most landowners….” In other areas, we’re looking at $600, $800, or $1,500 per acre.”
However, failing to invest might be disastrous. “In this location, the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire is increasing,” he stated. “And if you don’t do that task, you’re going to lose all you own.”
A century of federal policies aimed at putting out all flames resulted in a massive buildup of brush, tiny trees, and other fire fuels, making the landscape more vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. Climate change and drought have exacerbated the situation.
“There’s an awareness that fire needs to come back,” said Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
However, he explained that reintroducing it in a way that ensures the majority of trees survive is a difficult task. “Reduce both the surface fuel load, the amount of dead and fallen woody stuff on the ground — twigs, leaves, everything else — and then the number of trees per acre,” says the report.
Working on private land to reduce fuel consumption is one of the most difficult aspects of tackling the crisis. According to an assessment by the American Forest Foundation, a conservation organization, while much of the forest in the West is held by the government, families, and individuals own more than 9 million acres in high-risk areas.
According to a new study, considerably more major wildfires have originated on private land and spread into national forests in the last three decades than the other way around, emphasizing the need for private landowners to take action.
However, according to Connecticut State Forester Christopher Martin, president of the National Association of State Foresters, small-property owners rarely have the expertise to manage their land on their own. “I see where you’re coming from. They don’t own the land for the purpose of preventing wildfires. It’s mainly for seclusion or investment, as they like the animals.”
Risk reduction work is extremely costly, and it rarely pays off, according to Martin. Even landowners who are dedicated to forest management require assistance.
That’s where Pettigrew and other stewardship foresters come in. He is responsible for everything from enforcing fire and forest laws to educating landowners, linking them with specialists, and assisting them in the creation of management plans and grant applications.
Foresters like Pettigrew are paid with a combination of federal and state funds, with state forestry agencies matching USFS funding. But he’s one of only two stewardship foresters in Klamath County’s 6,000 square miles.
“The amount of funds available for landowners to conduct work is the key driver of our workload,” he said. At any given time, he works with a few dozen landowners, but his agency may be supporting as many as 1,500 landowners in Klamath County alone.
There are around 75,000 family forest owners in Oregon, and there are moreover 10 million in the United States. Without government outreach and aid, few people will work in management.
According to a recent Forest Service survey of private landowners with more than 10 acres of forest, around 25% do no management and only 11% have written plans for their area. Few people are even aware of help services, according to the report.