“Firmageddon” in Oregon

I posted a part of this column in another thread. Here’s the entire article, with links. It’s from the February 2023 edition of The Mountain Times, a community newspaper in my area. I write a monthly column, The Woodsman.

FWIW, California is in the midst of a “pinemaggedon.”

“Firmageddon” and Oregon Forest Health

By Steve Wilent

For newspaper, magazine, or blog editors trying to come up with attention-grabbing headlines (as all editors do) for a story about forest health (boring!), using the word “Firmageddon” would be a slam dunk. The Oregonian used the term in a November 25, 2022, article, “Record number of firs dying in Oregon, Washington in what experts call ‘Firmageddon.’” Other newspapers far and wide ran similar headlines, including Esquire, Wired, and the US edition of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Firmageddon, a term based on “armageddon,” was coined by researchers who had compiled data cleaned from aerial surveys of forest conditions in Oregon and Washington. According to The Oregonian, the researchers found that “Fir trees in Oregon and Washington died in record-breaking numbers in 2022,” and it was “the largest die-off ever recorded for fir trees in the two states.”

Note that the die-off of firs does not include Douglas-fir, the most common tree in our area, but so-called “true fir” species grand fir and noble fir, which are common in the northern Cascades, as well as white fir, Shasta fir, and red fir, which are common in southern Oregon. Douglas-fir is not a true fir.

In assessing the results of aerial surveys covering about 25 million acres in Oregon, the researchers found that “The fir mortality is widespread and quite severe in some locations. Fir mortality has been detected across Oregon and Washington, but the elevated and more severe fir mortality was observed across the Ochoco, Malheur, Fremont, and Winema National Forests from Central Oregon to the California border. More than 1.2 million acres have been impacted with fir mortality across the Pacific Northwest, with ~1.1 million of those acres all being recorded in Oregon. Nearly double the acres impacted compared to all the previous year’s data on fir mortality in Oregon.”

The results of the surveys are summarized in “Forest Health Highlights in Oregon – 2021,” from the Oregon Department of Forestry and the US Forest Service (download it at tinyurl.com/3cmna6hc). The US Forest offers an informative “story map” that looks at data from Oregon and Washington (tinyurl.com/ywy76erh).

Trees die in our forests every year due to a variety of natural causes, such as wildfire, insect attacks, and diseases. In recent years, many trees have been weakened by drought stress, which reduces their ability to defend themselves against insects and diseases. Heat stress, such as during the unusual “heat dome” we all suffered through in 2021, also weakens trees. The graph accompanying this article shows that tree deaths from abiotic factors—drought and heat stress (shown in blue)—were far greater in 2021 than in previous years. This is not surprising, as much of Oregon has seen drought conditions in recent years, “most heavily across Oregon from the center of Oregon around the Ochoco Mountains to the California border,” according to the report.

To me, as a forester, the high mortality in true firs isn’t surprising. In many areas, especially in eastern and southwestern Oregon, true firs have “invaded” forests that had previously been dominated by large, old ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs. In the past, relatively frequent, low-intensity fires killed most of the young true firs before they could become big enough to compete with the larger, older trees. Such fires were caused by lightning or were intentionally lit by Native Americans for centuries before European settlers moved in. Today, the invading true firs have become large enough to compete with larger trees for water and nutrients, and most or all trees in these overcrowded forests are stressed, leaving them more susceptible to insects, diseases, drought, heat waves, and especially wildfire.

The US Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, private landowners, and other forest managers have worked for many years to reintroduce low-intensity fire—prescribed fire that is beneficial in ways similar to the fires lit by Native Americans. With so many young trees and dead/down woody debris in these forests, wildfires that otherwise would have been low intensity, leaving the largest trees unscathed, often become high-intensity fires that kill many or all of the large trees. Using prescribed fire in these areas can help clear out the invading firs, but only if the amount of available fuel is reduced beforehand through mechanical or hand thinning.

Oregon Forest Facts

The “Forest Health Highlights” report makes for interesting reading for foresters and others who are concerned about die-offs in our forests. For a more general look at forests, see “Oregon Forest Facts, 2023-24 Edition,” from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, or OFRI (a free download at tinyurl.com/ya9w6hwu. Teachers, take note: OFRI will mail you hard copies at co cost).

This 20-page booklet is packed with information. For example:

  • Nearly half of Oregon is forestland. Oregon forests vary by species composition and ownership. There are more than 30 distinct forest types, but Douglas-fir dominates in western Oregon, ponderosa pine in eastern Oregon, and mixed conifers in southwest Oregon. In terms of ownership, the federal government manages 61% of Oregon forests; private owners manage 34%; state and county governments manage 4%; and Native American tribes manage 2%.
  • Timber harvest levels from public and private forestlands over the past 20 years have remained relatively stable, although the Great Recession (2007-09) and the collapse of the housing market brought a severe contraction in the U.S. demand for lumber. Consequently, Oregon’s timber harvest reached a modern-era low in 2009, the smallest harvest since the Great Depression in 1934. By 2013, the harvest had rebounded to roughly pre-recession levels.
  • Oregon has led the nation for many years in producing softwood lumber and plywood typically used for homebuilding. Oregon’s lumber output of 6.1 billion board feet in 2021 accounted for about 16.5% of total U.S. production, while Oregon plywood mills accounted for about 28% of total U.S. plywood production in 2021. 

Oregon also leads the nation in the number of plants that manufacture engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam), and mass plywood panels (MPP). MPP? Think plywood, but huge: Up to 48 feet long, 10 feet wide, and a foot thick. The only MPP manufacturer in the world, so far, is Freres Engineered Wood, in Lyons, Oregon.

Have a question about the trees and plants in our forests? Want to know how much of Oregon is forested now compared to, say, in 1600? Let me know. Email: [email protected]

8 thoughts on ““Firmageddon” in Oregon”

  1. My area in the early 80’s was the Fremont, Winema, Ochoco and Deschutes. I spent most of my time in those forests doing tree improvement work.. tree selection, hunting for test and seed orchard sites. The current situation (40 years later) was predictable.

    What did people think was going to happen? With more trees than the dry years could support.. plus species that aren’t as resistant to drought as PP.

    Side note: Fads of the 1980’s .As I recall, I think it was the Deschutes or Ochoco version of Forplan.. that told us (according to our Forplan gurus) to cut the PP and leave the true fir (!) because they would grow faster. Tree diversity didn’t seem to be a goal in our version. Also the tendency for true firs to get sick and die from diseases and insects. Of course, we didn’t do that.

    • I have nothing repeatable to say about FORPLAN but I do have some questions about Steve’s intriguing post, viz.:

      Steve said: “To me, as a forester, the high mortality in true firs isn’t surprising. In many areas, especially in eastern and southwestern Oregon, true firs have “invaded” forests that had previously been dominated by large, old ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs.”

      This is an excellent observation, but should forest plans be amended to reflect this reality?

      Steve also said:

      “Today, the invading true firs have become large enough to compete with larger trees for water and nutrients, and most or all trees in these overcrowded forests are stressed, leaving them more susceptible to insects, diseases, drought, heat waves, and especially wildfire.”

      I found this observation both interesting and disturbing, and would be interested in Steve’s or others’ views on how to address national forests’ role in water management. Yes, the 1897 Organic Act addressed this issue, but what does that mean today?

      • In my salvage logging experience, the true firs tend to die in huge groups. You would see pitch streamers in every tree. Selective logging in true fir stands is bad, but insect salvage is worse, silviculturally-speaking. I have even seen places where white fir seeded in first, after a high intensity wildfire. That really throws a kink into “natural succession”.

      • In response to Sharon, FORPLAN was typically an economic maximization model, except for when you told it to not to what it wanted to do. With the discount rate minimizing the influence of future stands, it would want to cut down the most valuable existing trees first if it could.

        As far as amending forest plans to reflect changes in forest composition, I think those changes were probably expected to be a slow enough that they could be dealt with when forest plans were revised (“at least every fifteen years”). Until we found out that revising forest plans was even slower. And since actual harvest scheduling was not dictated by the model, changing what it said about this wasn’t all that important.

        The Lolo once tried to change its ASQ based on more realistically obtainable volume, and got slammed by the WO (as I recall).

  2. We undoubted crossed paths back in the day; I left the Ochoco in 1983. I can assure you we, on the Ochoco, cared little for fir – Douglas, or true.

    Back in the late 1970’s, I was working as reforestation forester, and was on some kind of silviculture review on post sale work south of Mitchell. We were in a pine/Doug fir stand, pretty high up, that had most of the pine overstory taken off, leaving small diameter ponderosa and both firs. Anyway, I had planted 2-1 Douglas fir in the shelterwoods and was catching hell over my work. Some wise-acre asked why I would do such a stupid thing? I spit a big wad of tobacco juice between my boots and said “my boss told me to do it!” Because the elevation held snow so long we had already planted most of the pine, leaving Douglas fir, we really didn’t want. True story!

    As I advanced, I took to planting as much larch as I could in the associated species stand clearcuts and mixing mainly pine in the “Mazamma ash”clearcuts. We gathered our own cones through contract and force account. We rented a big crane to pick the larch out of a fashioned basket/bucket contraption. We could go up about 160 feet, as I remember (vividly).

    We “helped” in the “super tree” work; way behind the South but still a keen interest in promoting enhanced forest genetics…..

    Anyway – you ever run into Dewayne Ecker? Thought so! 🤠🤠

    • Yup, I was the Area Geneticist for the four forests located in Lakeview but then moved to Prineville for dual career reasons. This was a Big Deal at the time, but would be “so what?” today.

      Yes Duane Ecker and I shared many exciting adventures He was my mentor in the FS in many ways (I know, that explains a lot!)

      We sat close to each other in Ochoco SO cubicle-land under the watchful eyes of our boss, Chuck Downen, the Timber Staff.

      Also close in cubicle-land were Joe Meade (apparently headphones didn’t exist then, so we got to hear all his DG messages read in a computer monotone) and the Law Enforcement guy (when he started whispering, you knew it was time to tune in to his conversations). Nothing like an open office to learn about the FS!

      We were also part of the Pilot effort and I was on the business management team and we recommended that the FS be able to write checks (no, I am not making this up). Dave Rittersbacher, the Forest Supe, was one of the first people outside Timber who treated me as if I had something to contribute to the Outfit.

      Back to Duane- he attended the Asheville Reunion and we had a chance to catch up, so I think he is still around.

  3. Best overview of Oregon forests statewide I have read in 40 years. The interminable process litigation to stop timber sales that were needed to remove the invasive, by purposeful neglect, and inability to use fire before long duration fire holding true firs, became “old growth” and the resulting successful litigation created the problem. DBH and “Old Growth” has proven to be the “existential threat” to older forest preservation because they bar fuel reduction by cutting and removing the 5 to 100 or more hour fuels. Then NSO multilayered understory dogma created by observations on Westside doug fir and associated understory assumptions proclaiming that understory was essential to NSO habitat and nest trees. The red tall snags from 18th century burns have now about all fallen. Is that why owls are gone? Or were Stryx owls collateral damage from illegally broadcast rodenticides used to protect clandestine illegal marijuana grows that are legion on remote and roadless Federal, State and Private large area ownerships?


Leave a Comment

Discover more from The Smokey Wire : National Forest News and Views

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading