Eastern Washington’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan and the Jolly Mountain Fire: A Retrospective Look at Efforts to Reduce Risk

A mile long and 200 yards wide. Just this spring Washington State Department of Natural Resources forestry staff installed the Lick Creek shaded fuel break in the Teanaway Community Forest between densely overgrown forestlands to the north and the Wagon Wheel community and Teanaway Valley to the south. It would play a critical role just a few weeks after its completion when, on August 11, 2017, lighting give rise to the Jolly

IMG_0138
The Jolly Mountain Fire as it approached Teanaway Valley outside of Cle Elum in August of 2017.

Mountain Fire.

Predictions say that compared to last century we can expect to see four times more acres per year burned later this century. Washington will continue to see wildfires. Yet, strategically focused forest health treatments, particularly around neighborhoods, can reduce uncharacteristic, high-severity wildfires, increase forest resilience and reduce damage. That’s why Public Lands Commissioner Hilary S. Franz and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources are promoting Washington’s new 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for eastern Washington. It identifies reducing the risk of wildfire in populated areas as a key goal.Goal2

As the Jolly Mountain Fire grew, it ultimately became the nation’s second-highest priority. This meant that fire responders were able to get good access to limited resources. Eventually up to 828 personnel were assigned to the fire. With this support, wildland firefighters were able to work on fire line operations while contractors worked to prepare structures by removing vegetation with brush chippers and chainsaws. As the fire approached, structure firefighters from across the state arrived in time to provide backup protection to area homes. This allowed wildland firefighters to focus their efforts on managing the fire itself. This isn’t always the case.

Wildland firefighters are often diverted from their work to stop an advancing fire to instead focus on defensive tactics designed to protect lives and structures. This can reduce their effectiveness, increase the effort’s complexity and result in more expensive suppression costs. The cost of the Jolly Mountain Fire has reached about $25 million – and expenses are still being tallied.

Last summer’s Jolly Mountain Fire threatened many populated areas. But one, the Wagon Wheel community, had a couple things going in its favor.

Wagon Wheel became a Fire Wise USA community in 2010. Though the 51 homeowners at one time had invested $96,000 toward reducing their wildfire risk, diligence varied over the years. As the Jolly Mountain Fire began to look like a threat to this community, firefighters had time to assess how well they would be able to defend each home. One lot with dense vegetation can pose a serious risk to surrounding properties. If that home and nearby trees catch fire, countless sparks will cascade down upon neighboring homes. It became clear that more work would have to be done in Wagon Wheel.

One of the strategies within the new forest health strategic plan is to better support landowner assistance programs that help reduce risk – such as creating Community Wildfire Protection Plans and defensible space around homes. Fire Wise USA is such a program. Last year Fire Wise USA saw more new communities join from Washington than any other state. Yet, homeowners and communities have to maintain vigilance and repeatedly address ever-growing vegetation.

Ever-growing is an apt description for Washington’s population as well.  Development is

sprawl_hillside_mtsg-2
wildlandurban interface (WUI) is where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildlands. WUI areas are ripe for human-environment conflict, such as wildfire damage, habitat fragmentation, introduction of exotic species and declining biodiversity.

fragmenting Washington forests and new homes built in wildland areas are increasing risk.

Retroactively, one might acknowledge that the Teanaway Valley is a difficult place for a neighborhood. The 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington itself recognizes this particular watershed as one of the many higher priority areas across the state due, in part, to its fire risk.

Forty years ago, when home construction began here, our climate was not changing the way it is today and people were less aware that developing in wild areas like this would increase wildfire suppression challenges. Our state has learned hard lessons since then.

The new 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for eastern Washington calls for ways to keep forestlands for converting to non-forest uses – such as subdivision development in wildland-urban interface areas. In fact, one of the motivating factors for purchasing the Teanaway Community Forest, which surrounds the Wagon Wheel community, was to prevent further encroachment into these forestlands. But you can’t turn back the clock and plenty of Washington communities just like Wagon Wheel already exist.

To reduce risks to these many existing communities the forest health strategic plan proposes more mechanical treatments and controlled burns in wildland-urban interface areas. This brings us to the second thing that the Wagon Wheel community had going for it.

The state has not owned nor managed the Teanaway Community Forest for long – the legislature purchased it in 2013 – and there are many competing funding needs. However, the Tenaway Community Forest Advisory Committee concurred with staff recommendations to complete a $185,000 shaded fuel break along Lick Creek Tie Rd. They recognized that this fuel break could help protect the state’s $100-million community forest investment, important wildlife habitat, nearby communities and critical waterways – nearly 400 miles of free-flowing streams and rivers crisscross the area and form the Teanaway River.

IMG_0422
Lick Creek shaded fuel break shortly after work was completed in spring of 2017. 

The Lick Creek mechanical thinning project followed along the Lick Creek Tie Rd. and other old roadbeds. These roads provided good access for machinery to trim low-hanging branches and cut back brush. Crews left larger trees in clumps and gaps resembling the kinds of tree stands historically found in this watershed. The road itself was expected to serve as a fuel break in the event of a wildfire – as it did on September 2, 2017.

As the fire initially grew, firefighters had come through the shaded fuel break and decided that they would attempt to stop this edge of the fire’s progression here. The reduced fuel levels would lessen the intensity of the fire and it was the first place where they would be able to safely position firefighters. In additions, those roads could provide a means of escape. Crews then cleaned up areas in need of additional attention and extended the fuel break miles in either direction.

IMG_0146
Along the northern end of the Lick Creek shaded fuel break as crews used back-burns to meet the Jolly Mountain Fire.

Over several nights firefighters back burned into the fire. (The strategy was to light the back-burns as ambient temperatures lowered and humidity recovered slightly – to reduce the intensity of the back-burns.) Conditions were challenging – nearly record breaking heat and dryness. Today you can see evidence of multiple places where firefighters had to put out fire that “slopped” or “spotted” across the line.

Shaded fuel breaks, Fire Wise preparedness, fuel reduction projects and forest health treatments offer no guarantees. Had the wind blown differently, this may have been a very different story. For Commissioner Franz, the near-miss was emotional experience.

“The tension we all shared was just incredible – I could feel it in the air,” said Franz. “We knew we were all doing everything we could, but we also knew that it was a very serious situation. My heart was aching for what these communities were having to endure.”

Fortunatley, this time, the line held. About 10 percent of the Teanaway Community Forest was severely damaged, but no structures or lives were lost.

Today, plants in the less severely burned areas are returning. The tall trees – and even a few of the smaller ones – have survived. But there is more work to do.

A full expression of the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington across this landscape would have had forest health treatments extend through the entire watershed, rather than cut through as a single line. Under this plan’s vision, you would seen treatments go past property lines so that Teanaway Community Forest, Natural Resources trust lands, Wagon Wheel private properties, U.S. Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and other neighboring forestlands were equally resilient and prepared.

The fire would not have had to be stopped at any specific point, such as the Lick Creek fuel break, but could have been addressed anywhere within the forest based on other relevant considerations – safety, threatened species wildlife habitat, proximity to homes, risk to infrastructure, or even operational expenses.

Ambitious? Yes. Will it take time? Yes. Yet Commissioner Franz believes she, her

hilary
Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands.

Department, and all of Washington, are up to the task.

“We’re motivated. Everyone understands the issue and people are beginning to understand that we have a strong start to a solution,” said Franz. “As we successfully implement such efforts, our state and communities will begin to benefit from reduced high severity wildfires.”

Read the full 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan: Eastern Washington here: www.dnr.wa.gov/ForestHealthPlan.