Tom Merritt’s Eastern Washington home is about 15 miles away from where Boyds Fire broke out on the evening of Aug. 11. Perched high up on a hill, he saw smoke and watched as the fire rapidly grew.
“I was watching it from the deck of my house in Colville and I was like, ‘Oh, that thing is getting after it,’” Merritt recalled.
And it did spread fast.
The fire began in the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area, west of the Columbia River in Northeast Washington. It was windy that evening, and embers blew ahead of the fire, igniting more forest and growing the fire further. The fire threatened a cedar mill vital to the local economy, businesses, private homes, and Bonneville Power Administration lines that serve Ferry County. When those power lines go down, the whole county loses power.
“It was very eye-opening,” said Daro Palmer, assistant manager of the wildlife area. “Fire is a very impressive thing. With that fire, the way it was with high winds and the rate it was moving at, I was awestruck.”
With so much at stake and the fire quickly growing in intensity, firefighters needed to act fast to contain the blaze. However, steep terrain meant firefighters would have to dig firelines mostly by hand, and in a forest thick with vegetation, this was easier said than done. The fire grew to more than 3,000 acres within a few days, prompting evacuation notices for nearby residents.
Then firefighters learned of a respite: the fire was headed toward forests that had received forest treatments, such as tree thinning and controlled burning, carried out by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service. Because of this work, these forests were much less dense, making them easier to navigate with minimal fuels (dry brush and woody debris). The fire would not spread as quickly through those woods and hopefully would stay on the ground.
“Without the previous treatments we would not have had the time to construct firelines and remove the fuel to be able to burn out the fire. So we would have had to let the fire grow larger in order to buy us enough time to safely construct firelines,” said Cindi Tonasket-Ebel, landowner assistance forester for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, who assisted with fighting the fire.
In the end, those firelines were what contained and stopped Boyds Fire.
The story of forest health treatments aiding wildland firefighters is becoming more noticed as the state and its partners work to increase the scale of forest health work in Central and Eastern Washington under DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan. Treatment areas provided a tactical advantage during the Stormy Creek and Cougar Creek fires near Entiat in July, and prescribed burning and forest thinning done previously in the Colville National Forest helped crews battle the Horns Mountain Fire in August.
Forest health treatments
Different landowners may have different reasons for treating their forests, but forest health treatments are generally aimed at returning many Central and Eastern Washington forests to a more natural state – one that is resilient to wildfires and less likely to spread flames.
Common treatments consist of thinning small trees from an overly dense forest, and removing the low-hanging branches, woody debris, and brush that could help fire spread from the ground up into the crowns of trees – also called ladder fuels. Forest thinning is often followed with prescribed – or controlled – burning to further reduce fuels and help encourage plant regeneration in ecosystems that rely on occasional, low-intensity fires.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has actively thinned 4,100 acres in the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area for more than 10 years in order to provide high-quality habitat for species of all sizes – from deer and moose to birds and butterflies. They have also conducted prescribed burning on 890 acres within that stand to eliminate the slash produced by thinning, reducing the wildfire hazard even more while rejuvenating the forest floor, said Matt Eberlein, prescribed fire program manager for Fish and Wildlife.
For many pine forests in Central and Eastern Washington, fire is part of the ecosystem’s natural process. It cleans the forest floor, makes room for sunlight to reach the floor, and nourishes the soil. It also reduces competition for nutrients, allowing trees to grow healthier.
The U.S. Forest Service has also applied forest health treatments to about 1,500 acres in the Sherman Creek area since 2012. These treatments include cutting small trees to reduce ladder fuels, mechanical thinning, and pile burning.
“In a combination of forest activities and prescribed fires, we were actually able to bring that stand of timber a little closer to what its natural state would have been,” Eberlein said.
Outside of those treated areas, Boyds Fire burned hot and ferociously.
“It carried through the untreated landscapes fairly easily through continuation of the fuels and spots where embers go up in the air and land up ahead of the fire and start new fires,” said Gary Jennings, a deputy incident commander on the fire.
In areas that were thinned, the fire still burned hot, but because there were no ladder fuels to spread the flames upward, it remained largely on the forest floor, said Richard Tveten, forest manager for Fish and Wildlife.
“It was a very hot, windy day, so the fire still carried through the areas that had been thinned and burned, but the damage to the forest was minor,” Tveten said.
5 homes lost, 23 protected
The effort to fight Boyds Fire was multilateral. Under the management of Northwest Incident Management Team 11, DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, Joint Fire Districts Stevens County 8/Ferry County 3, Colville Bureau of Indian of Affairs, and other agencies worked together to suppress the fire using firefighters from 16 different states. About 1,100 people were engaged in fighting the fire. Teams worked around the clock until the fire was suppressed, Jennings said.
The fire burned for 21 days over 4,712 acres. It burned through land managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, DNR, and Washington State Parks. Within the perimeter, five homes and four outbuildings were lost, but 23 homes and many more outbuildings survived.
This year marked Jennings’ 44th fire season. Though he is retired from his position as a fire management officer with the Forest Service, he still works during the wildfire season with Northwest Incident Team 11.
“Everyone is working under the same rules of engagement,” Jennings said. “It goes from training to coordination. And we are pretty fortunate to have such a strong inter-agency working group in wildland fire. In my job, I worked around the country and you don’t always find that. And every year we seem to make better strides.”
Jennings said Washington’s approach to wildfires can be a good example for the rest of the country. From inter-agency collaboration, to the methods used to fight wildfires, to forest health treatments that reduce wildfire risk, Washington will continue to make progress.
The inter-agency approach makes sense when treating forests too. This fire burned across the boundary lines of seven public agencies, plus private property. DNR’s forest health plan includes a vision of these landowners all working together to implement large-scale, cost-effective treatments to significantly improve the chances of avoiding the kind of intense wildfires that so significantly impact Washingtonians.
“As we face a warming climate and longer fire seasons, we need to continue to collaborate across property lines to safeguard our forests and communities,” said Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands in Washington state. “Washington is known for its evergreen forests, and the thinning and prescribed burning that agencies are doing to maintain the health of those forests is critical to preserving our natural resources for generations to come.”
To ensure forest work continues across Washington at the pace and scale needed to achieve this, Franz is seeking $55 million from Washington’s state legislature. Earlier this month, Franz also unveiled her Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan to help the state prepare for and manage increasing wildfire challenges.
As head of the state’s largest wildfire fighting force – the Department of Natural Resources – Commissioner Franz knows that increased investments in wildfire preparedness and forest health restoration are key to reducing wildfire risk in Washington.