After the burn: Landslide risks, timber troubles in Oregon


Forestry expert offers insight into what comes next for Oregon's wildfire-scorched lands

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Wildfires are still burning across Oregon, but forestry and geological experts are already thinking about what comes after the flames have gone out.

“Landslides are a serious concern after wildfires,” Mike Cloughesy of the Oregon Forest Resources Institute told KOIN 6 News on Monday.

One factor that determines an area’s landslide risk is how much vegetation the fire wiped out, since roots help hold soil in place. The slope of the land and soil type also play a role.

“Beachie Creek is a very big fire, Riverside is a very big fire,” Cloughesy said. “But what makes the fire area susceptible to erosion is not the size of the fire, it’s the impacts and the soil and the underlying geology and the steepness in each specific area.”

Crews won’t be able to evaluate the damage until the fires are out.

In the short term (0-2 years), getting “massive amounts of rainfall” in an at-risk area is most likely to cause a landslide, Cloughesy said. As time goes on, vegetation regrowth becomes more important.

“We could have a million acres to reforest by the time this is all done with all these fires in Oregon,” he said.

Landslide clean up on the Historic Columbia River Highway, February 3, 2020 (ODOT)

That may sound easy, but typically reforestation is planned ahead of time. Seedlings are grown in the nursery so they can be planted after a clear cut or similar event, but no one plans for a wildfire. So there could be a shortage of seedlings.

Cloughesy’s final concern is the timber left behind.

“People are going to want to recover that,” he said. “They’re going to need to do some harvesting of the dead trees and … in the short term, there’s probably gonna be more logs available and more logging jobs available than there were before.”

Dead timber has to be harvested relatively quickly before it rots, he said. “So for private land, the value of the timber is a big concern.”

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