Forest Fires and Land Use - a new report coming soon

Ashlee K. Fox
Tue, 07/24/2018 (All day)
Owl flying above wildfire. Photo Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Wildfires are part of life in Oregon. They are a natural part of the ecosystem, and they are important for wildlife habitat and for building long-term fire resistance among trees. But fires have also changed over the last 100 years or so. Today, wildfires are burning more acres, burning at higher temperatures, and becoming more severe. They are also more expensive than ever. The state spent a total of $38 million fighting wildfires in 2017, with total suppression costs hovering at a massive $454 million. The reason is threefold: dense burning materials, climate change, and development. As this year’s Gerhardt Intern, my project takes a close look at wildfires, development, and land use laws in Oregon to think about how we can manage the growing risks associated with wildfire across the state. Luckily, there is already a system in place that is ready to be put to work keeping Oregonians safe: the comprehensive land use system. 

The Gerhardt Internship is a 10-week summer internship for a student interested in planning and pursuing a career in public service. Established in 1986 to honor the late 1000 Friends planner Paul Gerhardt, Jr., the program aims to educate and inspire a new generation of land use advocates. The intern works on a research project for the duration of this summer, focusing on an issue pertinent to a current land use issue. Following a fire season that burned a total of 717,212 acres and threatened 19,978 structures across the state, and intense seasons predicted for the future, wildfires are an important issue to address.

My research has given me the opportunity to think about how Oregon can tackle the challenges posed by wildfires and development pressures across the state. To inform my work, I have spoken with stakeholders across the state, from a Deschutes County forester to a Wasco County planner. I have also spent dozens of hours combing through Oregon’s statutes and rules, reading the latest fire science research, and learning about the best practices when it comes to land use planning and wildfires. In early July, I made a trip to Bend to get a sense of how wildfires impact central Oregon. I am working with Meriel Darzen, 1000 Friends’ Circuit Rider Staff Attorney based out of the Bend office, so we toured areas burned in recent fire seasons and met with experts on wildfires and land use.

The 2012 Waldo Canyon fire outside of Colorado Springs is an example of the potential devastation of locating subdivisions and other human-focused development at the wildlife/urban interface. At the time of this photo, 32,000 people had been evacuated from the area. Photo Credit: CNN

Oregonians will always live with wildfire, but the state’s comprehensive land use system provides the tools and legal infrastructure to keep people and homes out of harm’s way. Statewide Planning Goal 7, which addresses natural hazards, asks planners to take wildfire risk into account and keep development out of high risk areas. We can use this Goal, as well as other aspects of Oregon’s land use system, to ensure our communities are safe, our natural areas are kept intact, and our working lands keep working.

Our full report will become available in early 2019.

Ashlee Fox is a rising senior economics major at Reed College and recently returned from a year abroad at the London School of Economics. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, she is interested in the intersections of land use planning, economic development, and tribal sovereignty. In the past, Ashlee has held positions at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, the City of Milwaukie, and the Cherokee Nation government. She has also worked on political campaigns and volunteered for food access initiatives. Named a 2018 Truman Scholar, Ashlee plans to attend law school and pursue a career in law and public policy.