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Ask fire ecologists if they've been surprised by the ferocity of this year's wildfire season, still weeks away from being wrapped up, and they're likely to tell you, not so much.

That's because these experts have been tracking the trend in which each fire season seems to feature increasingly extreme and unpredictable fire behavior. And although this fire season has set a record for firefighting costs at $2.3 billion and counting, it is not likely to surpass the 10 million acres that burned in 2015, the worst fire season in decades, according to a recent story in The New York Times.

But there is an important difference this year in where the fires have burned, and that's caught the attention of Janean Creighton, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

In that Times article, Creighton, who studies the interactions between forest ecosystems and society, noted that this year's batch of wildfires has caught the public's eye in part because they have burned in spots that are well-loved: the Columbia River Gorge, for example. And smoke from wildfires has poured into our communities in a way we haven't seen for decades — and there's nothing like day after day of heavy smoke in the air to make a community feel as if it's under siege.

"We talk a lot about fire effects in the ecosystem," Creighton said when I called to follow up on the Times article. "But what about fire effects on the social aspect?"

In other words, it's one thing to read about devastating fires in remote wilderness areas. But we react differently when fire strikes closer to home, or when firefighters are forced to mount a massive effort to rescue a landmark like Multnomah Falls Lodge.

The fires burning throughout Oregon, Creighton said, "seemed to feel like a collective loss that all the communities and the whole state share. ... Now, it's something that impacts them more directly."

The result is that people who haven't thought that much about wildfire in the past suddenly have plenty of reasons to do so. And that, Creighton said, offers opportunities and pitfalls: "It's a teachable moment, in some ways."

On the plus side, she suggested, "there might be a realization ahead that we need to deal with the fuels (in forests) ahead of time before there's a problem," a realization that has escaped many policymakers in Washington, D.C. in recent years. 

But, she added: "One of my concerns is that there will be increasing value put on fire as something bad. We may head back to discussing fire as the enemy."

There's an important distinction to draw here: "Fire can do bad things," Creighton said. "But, at its essence, it's not good or bad. We put that value judgment on it."

In fact, fire has an important role to play in many ecosystems. And wildlands burned in fires often bounce back with surprising speed, a lesson that Oregon residents will have a chance to learn again as they watch the Gorge over the next few years. (Mitigation measures will be required to lessen erosion and the possibility of flooding over portions of the land that burned with the most intensity.)

The problem is that this lesson, about the resiliency of our wildlands, plays out over a period of years, and it's not quite as attention-getting as spectacular images of wildfires leaping into the crowns of trees or sending embers over the Columbia River to start blazes on the other side. But the longer lesson is just as important to absorb.

As is this lesson: For as long as there have been forests in the West, there have been wildfires. Some of our decisions over the last century about how to manage (or, frankly, not to manage) our forests have played a role in increasing the intensity of those fires, and it's time to rethink those. But policies that treat fire as an enemy to be suppressed at every turn — well, we've tried that, and look where it's got us.

And there's another lesson Creighton wants to continue exploring: She looks at Western communities that have adapted well to the reality of wildfire, and points to Bend as an example. "These communities have a better sense of the role of fire," she said. What can those communities teach the rest of us? This would be a good time to find out, especially since we have a receptive audience, at least for now. (mm) 

Mike McInally is the editor of the Gazette-Times and the Democrat-Herald. Contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net.

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