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Presentation at LMB shows fire history may not be what we thought

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By FERGUS MCLEAN/for The Herald  —  Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative put on a presentation Wednesday by OSU forest researcher James Johnston. The presentation was titled: “500 Years of Fire on the Middle Fork Willamette River” at Lion Mountain Bakery in Oakridge.

Johnston has been studying the fire history of the upper Willamette above Hills Creek Reservoir since 2015. He is ready to submit his research for publication. His team cuts slices from stumps and dead trees and, after polishing them, can identify dates of forest fires very accurately. The y do this by calibrating the distance between rings of light, summer wood and dark winter wood.

More frequent fires over time

What Johnston’s team has found is that the actual history of natural old growth stands shows far more frequent fires than textbooks predict. The report shows that mid-elevation Douglas fir burning every 5-6 years. This is a strong indication that these forests were managed with fire by indigenous people to promote more open forests and to enhance wildlife habitat and native food plants. Different forest types show a burn history of less frequent fires. Subsequently, high-elevation mountain hemlock and Pacific silver fir rarely burn.

Today’s burned acreage is still less than historically identified

Burned forest acreage dropped off dramatically with the establishment of the National Forest system in 1909. The recent uptick in acreage burned is still far less than was burned in pre-settlement times. However, the earlier fires tended to be less severe.  The depth of offshore carbon deposits show evidence of twenty times as much fire 1000-1500 years ago than in the last 500 years, according to Johnston.

Middle Fork Ranger District staff will present the second in an ongoing weekly series of forestry presentations at Lion Mountain Bakery next Thursday, December 8. Doors open at 5:30pm, with the talk starting at 6. Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative provides snacks.

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