Smoke is in the air this fall, and it's helping our forests

October 24, 2016 Alaina Kowitz

By Jen Watkins, Conservation Associate

Prescribed burning is underway on national and state forest lands in Washington this fall, and we’re seeing more progress than usual after years of effort to get more restorative fire on the ground. Through a combination of legislative direction and local collaboration, burning is taking place on up to 8,300 acres of the Okanogan-Wenatchee and Colville National Forests, as well as on adjacent lands managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Prescribed burns are the planned application of fire at the right time, at the right place, for the right reason, by professionals. Strategically returning fire to the forest has tremendous benefits for wildlife; from creating snags inside the burn areas for species to use for nests or dens, to stimulating growth of forage for deer and elk, to consuming excess fuels in the forest. Prescribed burns can also help establish safe zones for fire response teams to protect adjacent spotted owl or lynx habitat. 

“Fire suppression, along with logging, road construction and livestock grazing, has transformed forest structure and fire ecology across the state. In fire-prone forests of Eastern Washington, prescribed fire is an essential tool for restoring and maintaining forest habitat over time.”

Last spring, in response to several years of large wildfires and with support from Conservation Northwest and other organizations, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 2928, the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project, providing funding and direction for increased communications and collaboration on prescribed burning in our state. 

With state support, three of the local forest collaboratives that we participate in selected the landscapes for prescribed burns this year. Those include the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative in the eastern Cascades from Yakima County north to Highway 2, the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative in Chelan and Okanogan counties, and the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition which works from eastern Okanogan County east to Pend Oreille County. Burns are being conducted in areas of these landscapes selected by the collaboratives along with the Washington Prescribed Fire Council and state and federal land managers. 

“Fire suppression, along with logging, road construction and livestock grazing, has transformed forest structure and fire ecology across the state,” says Dave Werntz, Conservation Northwest’s Science and Conservation Director. “In fire-prone forests of Eastern Washington, prescribed fire is an essential tool for restoring and maintaining forest habitat over time.”

See a map and description of areas where prescribed burns are happening this fall at putfiretowork.org. 

One site in particular, with 400 acres set to be burned, lies in the Chumstick Watershed just outside Leavenworth. In this area we've worked as part of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition to reduce fuel build-up, which is a result of fire suppression. Through this work, we strive to restore fire-adapted forests, improve wildlife habitat, and promote community preparedness in the event of natural wildfires.

“The Coalition prioritized the need to develop the social license for the use of prescribed fire as one possible forest management tool last year. It is exciting to see this happen as part of a larger statewide effort,” said Hilary Lundgren of the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition. “The communication and coordination around these burns is allowing a greater connection between the people who are burning, those regulating the burns, and the communities that live near them.”

While each site is unique, the projects share common objectives: to reduce fire suppression, increase opportunities for safer firefighting, restore and maintain habitat, and create healthy forests that are more resilient to natural disturbances like fire, disease, and insects. Before fire practitioners can light the drip torch however, burn plans are created, scientifically reviewed, and agency-approved; vegetation surveys are completed; and fire control lines are identified and created. 

In addition to these precautions, permission must be granted by the State of Washington to approve smoke levels with the safety of nearby communities in mind. During the burn, air quality is closely monitored by officials both in-field and at the state level. After each burn, forest health conditions are reassessed to determine if forest management objectives are met.

“The communication and coordination around these burns is allowing a greater connection between the people who are burning, those regulating the burns, and the communities that live near them.”

The current prescribed burns are improving resiliency of forest land, and communications between communities and among coalition partners has increased regarding larger policy and implementation issues. This includes discussions around revising our state’s Smoke Management Plan that limits prescribed burns. 

Another benefit of managing forest resiliency through burning is the low implementation cost, compared to thinning those areas through logging practices. “Prescribed fire is very cost-effective form of management, by hundreds and hundreds of dollars less per acre than mechanical thinning,” said Matt Ellis, who is the fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District, in a recent Methow Valley News article. “Twenty people over a couple of days can do what it would take people with chainsaws years to do.”

We will always live with fire in Washington -- but the planned application of fire is an essential tool to empower communities and resource managers to more often decide how we want to live with it.

For more information on Conservation Northwest's policies on wildfire, visit our Wildfire and Forests page here.

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