Helicopter dropping water on the Maple Fire in the Olympic National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.
It’s easy to assume that the forests on the western side of the Cascade Range are too wet to burn, but that’s changing. These lush coniferous forests are legendary for their beauty, timber growth rates, and the habitat they provide for iconic species of the region. Historically, ample rain and winter snow kept these Pacific Northwest forest moist throughout much of the year. Major fires were rare, occurring every 100 to 400 years. Over the past two decades, however, fire seasons have grown longer, area burned has increased, and warm, dry conditions have become more common in these forests. Climate models project that conditions conducive to large fire events likely will become even more common in the future. With this comes heightened exposure to wildfires and increased risks and consequences of large fire events to nearby communities.
The 2017 Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge singed the eastern edge of the Portland metro area. Heavy smoke blanketed major population areas, disrupted transportation, and closed much of Oregon’s most popular recreation corridor for months. Trail restoration in many sites took a year or more. Along with other recent fires, the Eagle Creek Fire alerted many communities on the west side of the Cascade Range to the increasing risk of severe wildfire.
Given the increasing risk to urban areas and high-value public and private lands in the Pacific Northwest, in 2019 the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station launched a research initiative to support resource managers dealing with severe wildfire risk in west-side forests.
The initiative aims to forge stronger connections between research users and management partners by bringing together scientists, partners, and stakeholders to identify critical information gaps and coproduce management-relevant research. Unlike the dry, disturbance-prone forests east of the Cascade Range, wildfire risk on the west side has not been as well studied. The information produced by this research initiative will be used to help protect the health, safety, and economic well-being of communities in the region.