Photo: Land Trust.

Answering Your Burning Questions About Fire

Jun 02, 2023 by Jana Hemphill
Pile burning is a hot topic! Get answers to your burning questions in this blog post.

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It seems that pile burning is a hot topic these days (pun intended)! The Land Trust's stewardship director, Amanda Egertson, answers your burning questions:


What are the Land Trust's goals with pile burning?

Our goals are to help protect our neighbors from the threat of catastrophic wildfire, as well as improve the moisture, sunlight, and nutrient availability to the remaining vegetation (which includes trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers).

Why are you pile burning instead of chipping, hauling it out, or using it for other purposes?

The Land Trust pile burns in areas that cannot be reached with equipment, usually due to steep slopes, uneven terrain, and/or fragile conditions. Whenever possible, we prefer to use the cut wood for other purposes, like in our stream restoration projects. But sometimes conditions or materials just don't work for repurposing, so we pile burn.

If you create piles from your thinning efforts, isn't the fire danger already lowered?

Once the piles are created, the resources (light, moisture, etc) available to the remaining vegetation in the area are automatically increased and improved, but the fire danger remains (and often increases) due to all the material left on the ground. It becomes dry, brittle, and highly flammable if not burned.

Burning pollutes the already bad air in Central Oregon! Why are you contributing to this?

Yes, smoke is one of the not ideal outcomes of pile burning, but as our climate changes, smoke is inevitable. The question is how do we want our smoke? The Land Trust believes that forest restoration and pile burning—which sends small, controlled amounts of smoke into the air in the winter—is better than risking catastrophic wildfires and months of heavy smoke in the summer and fall.

Does pile burning remove moisture and nutrients from the forest?

No, thinning and pile burning actually help increase moisture availability in the soil. This is particularly due to our focus on juniper removal. Juniper trees consume a HUGE amount of moisture, so when we thin a lot of them, we're making that moisture available to all the remaining trees and other vegetation. Native bunchgrasses and wildflowers will flourish along the hillsides where the piles were burned within the next couple of years.

In fact, you can see this while walking the Rim Trails at Whychus Canyon Preserve. The robust and diverse wildflower display as you head down into the canyon in late spring and early summer is a result of the exact same type of juniper thinning and prescribed burning that occurred there several years ago.

Wait, I thought juniper trees are native to Central Oregon. Aren't they drought tolerant?

Yes, juniper trees are drought tolerant and native to Central Oregon. Historically, there wasn't the same density of junipers in our high desert. This was partially due to regular, low-intensity wildfires—they kept the junipers in check and surviving in areas that were safe from flames (think places like rock outcrops, or other spots where wildfire couldn't burn). And while junipers are drought tolerant, that doesn't mean they don't LOVE water! One juniper can consume 10-30 gallons of water a day! That's a lot of water usage in an already parched region.

We are in a drought. Doesn't pile burning make that worse?

Quite the opposite. We are improving conditions for the remaining plants, making more water available to them.

Why is fire beneficial to the forests and grasslands of Central Oregon?

Typically, soil fertility increases after low-intensity fires. Why? Fires chemically convert nutrients in the soil and from dead plant tissues, making these nutrients available for plants to absorb from the soil. In addition, fires are often followed by an increase in nitrogen-fixing plants. These plants help take nitrogen from the air and add it to the soil which helps build healthier soil for the trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers that follow.

Fire also helps remove the thick layers of forest/grassland debris that have built up over many decades of fire suppression. Removing these thick layers helps limit the spread of future wildfires, as well as helping new seedlings, shrubs, and bunchgrasses regenerate.



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