The Jolly Mountain fire burned for more than three months and consumed almost 57-square miles of forested lands near Cle Elum, Washington. Near the end of September, the fire was dying down. Yet, nearly a week after the fire was considered “contained,” another one was just beginning.
This time nearby residents were expecting it.
What many people do not realize is that fire is an integral part of many forest ecosystems.
Historically, low-intensity fires burned across eastern Washington landscapes regularly. These fires consumed fallen branches and small trees while clearing the ground. This created native ecosystems which thrived, while creating the open spaces that big game needed to forage. Because these fires happened on a regular basis, there was little opportunity for large amounts of fuel (branches, underbrush, and young trees) to build up. These small fuels can lead to a fire growing too quickly, while burning intensely hot. What was once a smaller event turns into a disaster.
Decades of fire suppression, past management practices, and wild-urban interface development mean that our forests no longer have these natural, “cleansing” fires. Instead, we see more catastrophic fires which can be unmanageable, dangerous and harmful to our ecosystems.
One of the solutions to this problem, is to mimic the small, natural fires that used to occur by executing smaller burns at regular intervals, so we can keep fuels to a minimum. This way when wildfires take place, they’re more manageable
It is truly remarkable that the Roslyn community having just weathered a large fire, would be willing to support another fire near (and in some cases, on) their land. But not only was this fire good for the forest, it was also used as a training opportunity for fourteen in-state agencies and groups.
Washington’s new 20-Year Forest Heath Strategic Plan for eastern Washington calls for many more forest health treatments across the state like this. To accomplish this goal, our state is going to need a lot more people trained on how to properly execute prescribed fires.
To conduct a prescribed fire, entities need a permit from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. This permit limits the time of year, weather conditions and air quality levels during which a prescribed burn can happen. In addition, trained and qualified staff must supervise the operation. These permit requirements, as well as nearby community considerations, can often limit the use of prescribed fires. It’s fortunate that this isn’t the only tool Washington landowners can use.
The idea behind these treatments is the same as prescribed burns: removing that under-layer of fuel, so the older and established trees won’t catch fire as easily. But with mechanical thinning, we can also “select” the trees we leave behind – such as habitat trees, varieties likely to do well in a changing climate, or more fire-tolerant tree species.
This type of forest management can look like a lot of different things. In some cases, larger trees need to be removed and can be taken to mills, similar to commercial logging. Revenue from these logs can be used to pay for more expensive treatments (and it would be a shame for that material to go to waste). In other cases, forest health treatments can be as simple as sweeping through and picking up fallen branches. Typically, there’s a combination of removing small-to-medium-diameter trees and cutting down brush. There’s a wide variety in the scale of treatments because the goal is to mimic what would have occurred naturally in that area over the past millennia.
Respecting Landowner Priorities
Historically, the forest would have varied across a spectrum of naturally occurring spacing and species compositions. This range provides opportunity for landowners to shape their forest to meet their own priorities – whether growing timber, providing specific habitat for threatened species, or having nice open areas for horseback riding.
Yet, with 2.7 million acres currently in need of forest health treatments, how do you begin?
The 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington outlines a framework for prioritizing and developing treatments.
The stakeholders who worked to create this plan elected to divide the state into manageable areas, based on watersheds. The U.S. Geological Survey’s watershed, or “hydrologic unit codes” (HUC), average around 150,000 acres per unit. The framework for moving projects forward looks like this:
- Identify Planning Areas
- Divide the watersheds into manageable 20,000 acre plots
- Assess and score these plots according to fire-risk, restoration need, economic potential, etc.
- Consult with local forest collaborators
- Develop recommendations for planning sites
- Conduct Landscape Evaluations
- Produce objective, science-based evaluations for planning areas
- Determine forest health using hard data
- Incorporate economic needs and social values into evaluation
- Develop Landscape Prescriptions
- Take the data from the evaluations, and create an action plan for each area
- Produce maps showing priority treatment areas
- Create guidelines and goals for each area
- Collaborate with local landowners to develop shared goals
- Develop Prioritized list of Treatments for Funding Requests
- Produce a final list of priority treatment sites, which will be presented to the legislature, along with a request for appropriate resources
Forest Health Advisory Committee Assistance
A newly formed Forest Health Advisory Committee, a diverse board of landowners, fire-fighter personnel and conservation groups, will provide assistance to staff and the Commissioner of Public Lands on these processes. This group will determine which areas are in most need of treatment according to the plan’s objectives and science-driven data. Their findings, decisions and recommendations will be presented twice a year to the legislature.
Moving Forward with Coordinated, Landscape-scale Treatments
At the current rate, it would take fifty-three years to implement desperately needed treatments on Washington’s federal lands (not to mention privately owned, or agency land.) The pace, scale, and effectiveness needs to increase if these important and ambitious goals are to be met. It’s important that resources aren’t wasted, and that the areas in most need of treatment are addressed first. The goal, as outlined in the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington, is to treat 1.25 million acres of eastern Washington forestlands over the next two decades.
Achieving this mission means restoring and managing forested landscapes at a pace and scale that reduces the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires and increases the health and resilience of forest and aquatic ecosystems. Doing so supports both rural communities and the people of Washington state. For the full text of the plan, follow this link.
(Prescribed fire photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Illustrations adapted from original illustrations by Bob Van Pelt.)