What's Tony Thinking

Trees, Forests and Fires


I’m back at our cabin in the Wallowa Mountains. One of my joys here is tending trees. Some of my friends tell me I am an “Ent,” which is a term for tree-tenders in Lord of the Rings. I think I’ll add it to my resume.

The trees I tend are of these varieties: Douglas Fir, White Fir, Tamarack (aka Larch), Red Cedar, Scent Cedar, Aspen, Spruce, Vine Maple, Blue Spruce, Red Blaze Maple, Western Ash and Norway Pine.

I have about 60 to 80 trees that I tend. I have planted many of them. Others are volunteers. Some are long established. But most are between birth and 20. My role is a modest one. I prune, sometimes thin, water when things are dry and fertilize. Sometimes I stake a tree up to give it a better chance of surviving winter winds. I wrap smaller ones in wire to keep the deer off. Occasionally, I move a tree to a spot where it has more “elbow-room.”

And this is my favorite time of the year because all these trees are wearing the new green of spring growth. Gorgeous. No decorated Christmas Tree is, i.m.h.o., more beautiful.

One of things I notice is that trees are pretty sensitive to one another. They will bend away from another nearby tree. It doesn’t have to be touching them, or even especially close to doing so. They seem to be aware of one another’s presence and respond, usually by bending, leaning or growing away from a nearby neighbor. Some even bend over backwards, well almost. Other times trees “sister-up,” as an arborist friend put, growing from the get-go in close proximity and working it out.

I love these trees, most of which — all, I hope — will outlive me.

But here’s the other subject in the headline: Fires. In our area, there’s a newish federally funded program, “Fire Wise.” The idea — a good one — is to get home and property owners to observes practices that will reduce the risk of fire to themselves and to their neighbors.

This often involves trimming. Trimming trees away from power lines. Trimming branches off of roofs. And generally making sure that the trees are healthy and so not inviting insects and disease — which makes them more vulnerable to fire. We are also encouraged to keep debris from accumulating anywhere near exterior walls, and to protect overhangs and other structures, like decks, from being vulnerable to wind-blown embers, by screening in openings.

As it turns out, 85% of fires are caused by humans. And some of the stories of how we humans cause fires, well, strain credulity. For example, one fire here got started when campers thought that the hollowed out base of a dead (read: dry) tree would be a terrific place to build a campfire. “Gosh, it looked just like a chimney.” Or the father and son who decided to go shooting guns in woods that were so dry as to be acres of tinder just waiting to explode. Guns get hot. Guns emit flames and throw off sparks. Or there were the kids who thought tossing lit firecrackers into a wooded canyon on the Columbia Gorge in August would be a lot of fun.

85% of forest fires are caused by humans.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about climate change and forest management in relation to wildfires. But 85% are human caused. 85% is a big number. What happens to the people who start a disastrous fire whether because it was an “accident” or because they were being pit stupid? Often not much. Kind of like the parents who buy a gun for their kid who becomes a mass shooter. Or leave a gun lying around the house for pre-schoolers to play with.

But that may be changing. And should be changing. A person who knows this turf recently spoke up to suggest that we should no longer suffer such fools. Here’s an excerpt from that article by Clare Frank.

“While many of the current fires in Canada were caused by lightning that landed on dry forests, here in the States, lightning is rarely the culprit. An astonishing 80 percent are caused by human carelessness. That means they could have been prevented with smarter behavior in our increasingly flammable wild lands. With so much smoke polluting the air so early in the fire season, maybe we can finally stop thinking of wildfires as out of our control.

“In the American West, evidence of fire foolishness is all around us. Nearly two years ago, the Caldor fire was allegedly started by a father and son who appear to have gone out shooting in a dry forest during California’s peak fire season, while smoke from the massive Dixie fire still hung heavy in the air. The Caldor fire scorched nearly 222,000 acres, destroyed 1,005 structures, injured multiple people and sent my husband and me packing ahead of the evacuation order.”

Yes, stop thinking of wildfires as out of our control and make those responsible liable for their actions.


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