The Burning Question

When do we get serious about climate action? 

By Emily Semple and Ralph McDonald 

“Big Trees Cause Rain.” As long-term Eugene residents, we remember the vintage bumper sticker.  But in no prior September were we as thankful for the arrival of the rain, water that is life to communities, animals, birds and many big trees.

We’re thankful, too, for dedicated firefighters and for scores of volunteers helping those whose homes and possessions were consumed in the fast-moving flames. People left quickly and needed shelter and everything else from food, clothing and baby supplies. Like many of our neighbors, we felt trapped in Eugene, hunkered indoors to avoid smoke filled lungs. A friend reported his honey bees dead in the yard. Deer in the south hills were seen licking each other to remove ash.

The east wind, which brought the fire toward the valley, was unusual, but the fires and thick smoke that have stayed in the area are becoming too common. Small particulate pollution and toxins from burning forests, structures and vehicles are a recurring health risk. Because of summer forest fires and winter wood stove usage, the American Lung Association in 2018 rated Eugene’s bad air spikes among the worst in the nation. A health provider that serves Oregon Health Plan recently lobbied for more compensation. The company forecast a 500-percent increase in forest fires and predicted the resulting smoke would dramatically increase respiratory illness, and, therefore their own costs for service.

Are we doomed to see ever more devastating natural and human disasters from forest fires, strong winds, hurricanes, flooding and crop failures?

 “The debate is over in terms of climate change,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom says. “The hots are getting a lot hotter and the wets are getting a lot wetter. The science is absolute. The data is self evident.” Climate is warming rapidly; and, if we do nothing, the human and ecological costs will be staggering.

Oregonians, too, are also ready for climate action, and as 350Eugene points out, citizens are acting to stop the Jordan Cove pipeline, phase out natural gas expansion and demand robust local Climate Action plans. Forests are an important part of needed climate action. West of the Holiday Farm Fire just outside of Springfield, the Bureau of Land Management plans to log mature second-growth forest (see EW 7/23). Josh Laughlin of Cascadia Wildlands tells us the BLM’s own study shows if these Thurston Hills Natural Area trees are cut, the forest fire danger is increased for the next 30 to 40 years. In a study of 1,500 forest fires tracked over a four-decade period across the U.S. West, “forests with the most logging burned in the severest fires,” forest scientist Dominick DellaSala says.

Citizens can add their voices to protect the Thurston Hills Natural Area, and they can press local government to achieve climate results. As a city councilor, Emily Semple introduced and saw to passage last fall’s youth-led climate action resolution. Ralph McDonald sat on last winter’s air quality subcommittee of the Sustainability Commission, and urged action from Lane Regional Air Protection Authority (LRAPA) and the state to protect forests adjacent to the valley’s airshed. The Eugene Climate Action Plan (CAP) has identified some critical steps to curb fossil fuel emissions, but both urban and rural forest protection should also be addressed.

Yes, one local government can’t just rewrite forest practices or regulate rural fire hazards, such as unsafe power lines, but Willamette Valley cities can press the Oregon Legislature to adopt better forest and airshed protection. These steps make economic sense. The annual fires are economic disasters for our communities, harming responsible local wood products companies, the many employees of these companies and the small businesses that serve these companies. Very few get rich from cutting the remaining Oregon “big tree” forests, shipping the logs to China whether their trunks are blackened or not. 

The big older trees resist and slow down fires and it’s important to protect them. Prior to becoming a councilor, Semple was a forest ecology graduate student, holding a degree in renewable natural resources. In her studies, she learned the large water quantity that mature trees store, 50 percent and more by weight, cools and moistens the forest glen. Big trees shade the understory to reduce flammable “ladder fuels” and ground foliage. They allow better air filtering, remove toxins and add oxygen to the airshed — important for forest embedded communities like ours. Protection of such trees should be a local priority, including both remaining ancient “climax” forests and mature second growth like the federal BLM Thurston Hills Natural Area stands. 

Semple also urges Eugene city government to develop infrastructure and services to support climate refugees relocating to our area. Better fire emergency evacuation plans and resident alerts must be developed by the city (an emergency alert didn’t go out to residents in Talent engulfed by the Almeda Fire, requiring emergency personnel to rush house to house). Local neighborhood associations can be asked to identify neighborhood structures that would serve as nearby smoke and fire shelters.

Forest policy change is required to stop another “unprecedented” Cascades fire and valley smoke inundation. Local emergency planning is in our own hands. Together, these form our best chance to breathe easier tomorrow.

Emily Semple is Ward 1 Eugene city councilor and is current council president.

Ralph McDonald is co-chair of the Southwest Hills Neighborhood Association (SHiNA) and a Eugene sustainability commissioner 2016-2020.