As we work to diminish the threat of wildfire and smoke, a new Nature Conservancy study shows an important part of the solution may actually be more fire – of the right type.
Written and photographed by Ryan Haugo, Washington Senior Forest Ecologist
At the end of September several of us had the pleasure of representing the Washington chapter at the Conservancy’s annual North America “Restoring America’s Forests” conference in northern Arizona. Restoring America’s Forests is a formal network of over 13 demonstration landscapes across North America where the Conservancy is pursuing conservation through collaborative, ecological restoration on our national forests. Within Washington, the Restoring America’s Forests network incorporates both the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative and the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative.
Northern Arizona is home to one North America’s largest, most ambitious ecological restoration efforts – the Four Forests Initiative (better known as 4FRI). Here the Conservancy has been instrumental in driving a science based approach to the restoration of millions of acres of dry, fire-adapted forests that are suffering from over a century of wildfire suppression.
The similarities (and differences) between the forests of Northern Arizona and eastern Washington are striking. Just as in eastern Washington, the dry forests of northern Arizona have experienced record breaking wildfires in recent years. The dry forests of northern Arizona are adapted to (and depend upon) frequent, low severity fire. Many of the recent “mega-fires” however, are well outside the range of conditions to which the forests are adapted. These fires threaten not only local communities but also the abundant fish and wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and recreational opportunities that draw people from across the globe to northern Arizona. Similar to eastern Washington, restoring the health and resilience of these forests depends upon using a combination of tools including mechanical thinning (logging), controlled burning, and managed wildfire to thin out the incredible density of small trees that have grown up in the absence of natural wildfire.
Finally, the economic viability of restoring dry forests in both northern Arizona and eastern Washington depends upon a forest products industry that has largely vanished from the local landscapes in recent decades. The differences are important to understand. The dry forests of northern Arizona are simpler, primarily with one tree species (ponderosa pine), and are typically much flatter. Both of these factors ease the implementation of ecological restoration treatments in comparison to eastern Washington.
A highlight of our 4FRI field tour including seeing first-hand the ingenious in-cab tablet technology that TNC has helped to develop. The tablets are designed to increase the efficiency of implementing ecological prescriptions during forest thinning projects. We also had the opportunity to visit the newly developed NewPac Fibre sawmill in Williams, AZ. This sawmill processes the trees harvested during restoration thinning and provides sustainable employment opportunities for local communities.
Most importantly however, was the opportunity to share successes, failures, and lessons learned amongst all of the Restoring America’s Forests landscapes. During these meetings we dive in deep to the policy, science, and partnership issues facing our work to restoring our National Forests. The Restoring America’s Forests network provides the opportunity to make and maintain personal connections between a forest ecologist in Washington State, a forest policy expert in Washington DC, a fire manager in Arkansas, and a forest manager in Arizona. These are powerful relationships and help to make the Conservancy such an effective conservation organization.
Story and photos by Adam Martin, Prairie Restoration Specialist, Center for Natural Lands Management
With the roar of the Pacific Ocean in earshot, Moses Prairie was set on fire by the Quinault Indian Nation for the first time since the 1800s. This 200-acre prairie is one fragment of the once more extensive coastal prairies found along the Olympic coast.
Lots of time, and many hands went into preparing the late-September burn. They set out a wide mow line, and laid out hundreds of feet of hose to support the burn. No engines or UTV’s were used, just bladder bags, flappers, and drip torches. Not as original as the friction fire burns that likely started the original fires on the prairie, but a far cry from the machine and technology heavy prescribed fires of modern times.
The burn was one project under the Washington Coast Restoration Initiative, a state-funded program created by The Nature Conservancy for communities on the coast to do on-the-ground work to improve land management. In the past, Quinault used fire to encourage desired plants and wildlife in the prairie landscape. With this project, they’re using traditional practices such as fire on Moses Prairie to improve production of berries, roots, bulbs and plants for basket-weaving materials, and stimulate the wetland prairie for wildlife such as ducks, geese, butterflies, bear and elk.
A group of us from the Center for Natural Lands Management traveled out to support their burn operations, and get the opportunity to burn a prairie completely different than the dry gravelly outwash prairies in the South Sound. As we circled up with the Quinault burn crew; tribal members, and elders, our boots wet as our weight began to make the ground seep, we shared and listened to stories about the place we were about to burn. The elders imparted the importance of communication. Communication is what allowed for us all to be there in that moment, having an intention to get something done, and listening, talking, and sharing a common vision. It was fitting words for what we were about to do.
Bob, our burn boss, brought a piece of pitch wood of longleaf pine, the foundation tree of the south, where he burns in the winter season. We used it to start the prescribed burn an old way; no burn mix, just fire and pitchy wood. It was a small gesture, bringing some of the fire from the south; where this history of ecological burning has been long and continuous. We hoped some of the flame of Southern fire would help again start a long legacy of fire that is the right of the people who have lived in these wet mossy forests and prairies the longest.
The fire itself was text-book and short; maybe an hour. We did our best to let everybody get an experience putting fire on the ground. The slough sedge and Labrador tea burned well, bog gentian and sundew remained flowering after the burn, the wet and boggy nature of Moses prairie gave us a gentle entry into burning this landscape again. Hopefully the elk will again forage in the new growth in a few weeks. The steady coastal winds made ignitions feel mostly like sailing. The smoke came together and went up high and into the upper winds. Everybody was smiling.
For many from the Quinault crew it was their first or second prescribed burn, and the feeling of joy was palpable when we again circled up at the end of the burn. Fire is one of the quickest ways to bring people together. For us at CNLM we get the privilege to burn almost every day in the summer, and many of has have been for many years. The opportunity to again feel the excitement of burning for the first time was a great gift to receive and share.
And helping to peel back a layer of colonization that happened on this landscape, while small, made it all the more potent.
The Nature Conservancy created the Washington Coast Restoration Initiative and supports it in the Legislature. We work with the Quinault Indian Nation and Center for Natural Lands Management on many projects.
Photographed by John Marshall
Eastern Washington’s dry forests have evolved with and depend on regular, low-intensity fire to thrive.
Washington's recent string of record-breaking wildfire seasons is spurring a call to action to develop and implement an overarching strategy to restore healthy forests that are resilient to routine, low-intensity wildfires.
To protect communities and timber resources, we have been aggressively suppressing wildfire for over 100 years, and today, large portions of our forests are unnaturally dense with high levels of forest fuels, and less able to resist insects, disease and severe fire. When wildfire does break out, these unhealthy forest conditions increase the likelihood of catastrophic fires that threaten lives and homes.
One tool in restoring forests to be more resilient to this kind of fire is the use of controlled burns, or prescribed fire, to reduce the fuel load and return forests to a more natural fire cycle.
In the spring of 2016, the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 2928, the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project. This pilot is examining the role of controlled burns in creating healthier, more resilient forests.
More details about the project are here: Put Fire to Work
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is working with partners now to implement a series of controlled burns across about 8,000 acres under the pilot project. The Conservancy is supporting this work. Participants in this pilot include the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, and Washington Prescribed Fire Council.
With the onset of climate change and growing human populations, more people are severely impacted by wildfires. But humans aren’t alone in losing their homes to wildfires—animals are also at risk.
Join our forest ecologist Ryan Haugo along with other wildlife and fire experts for a conversation about Washington’s increasingly hot landscape and the animals within struggling to survive.
Tuesday, Oct. 4
Naked City Brewery
8564 Greenwood Ave. N.
Note this is a 21 and over event.
· Paul Hessburg, Research Landscape Ecologist, USDA-Forest Service
· Ryan Haugo, Senior Forest Ecologist, The Nature Conservancy
· Jim Watson, Wildlife Research Scientist, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Moderated by Fred Koontz, Vice President of Field Conservation, Woodland Park Zoo
Space is limited! Click here to register.
Written by Reese Lolley, Director of Forest Restoration and Fire
Photo credit: John Marshall
New Showing Added Oct. 28 - Cle Elum Senior Center - 6:30 p.m. - Free
Megafires and the destruction caused by them is a serious and growing issue to our region. Our communities, homes, businesses and our very way of life are threatened. If we are going to make effective progress towards increasing fire resiliency, we must increase awareness and stimulate conversation about this important issue across all levels of society.
The Wildfire Project is a 60-minute, multi-media, traveling presentation hosted by Dr. Paul Hessburg (Pacific Northwest Research Station and the University of Washington), who has conducted fire and landscape ecology research for more than 27 years. The presented material comes in the form of fast-moving, short, topic-based talks interspersed with compelling video vignettes and features the work of wildfire photographer, John Marshall. The videos are being created by award-winning documentary film company, North 40 Productions, of Wenatchee,
Upcoming tour dates include:
October 28: Cle Elum, WA: 6:30 p.m. at Putnam Centennial Center (senior center) - hosted by Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative, U.S. Forest Service, Washington Resource Conservation and Development Council, Washington DNR
Photos & video by Chris Teren
The Nature Conservancy’s Yellow Island lies between Orcas and San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound. For the last 30 years, this 11-acre island has been the site of extensive research and repeated controlled burning to help maintain the diversity of species that require frequent fires to survive in healthy Puget Sound prairies.
This year, for the first time, we had a new dimension to this ongoing research. Volunteer Chris Teren brought in his drone photography and video skills to help document the burn. Watch his drone video below.
It’s important to note that Chris worked closely with our team, including Island steward Phil Green and the fire team from Center for Natural Lands Management, to safely document this event. Drones have posed real safety hazards to crews fighting wildfires and house fires in Washington, and no one should ever send a drone in to a fire when it’s not part of a planned exercise.
Read more about the use of prescribed fire on Yellow Island here.
See more of Chris Teren’s photography here:
Written by Patricia Sarmiento, Volunteer writer
Photograph by John Marshall
Emotions run high when disaster strikes. That’s why it’s important to educate yourself on disaster preparedness and make plans for what you’ll do during a wildfire before one ever comes your way.
There’s a few do’s and don’ts of reacting to an emergency wildfire situation. Many of us already know the do’s, so here’s a reminder of what you shouldn’t do during a wildfire.
Don’t Assume Everyone’s Clued In
Call 911 immediately–don’t assume someone else already has. Don’t assume your neighbors and local loved ones know about the wildfire breakout, especially if they’re at work or school in another area. Notify everyone of the potential danger.
Go ahead and get in touch with everyone in your family so you can talk about setting your wildfire action plan into motion.
Don’t Leave Your Home without Taking a Few Precautions
Unless you need to leave your home as soon as possible, go ahead and beef up your home’s ability to withstand a nearby fire by taking a few precautions such as:
Removing debris, yard waste, and firewood from your yard
Distancing your grill from your home
Shutting off all gas and propane suppliers
Closing windows, vents, and doors
But remember–lives are always more precious than things. If you feel unsafe while preparing your home for a nearby wildfire, leave immediately.
Don’t Wait to Take Action
Before you take precautions for protecting your home, know what your criteria are for deciding to evacuate. At what point will you know that it’s time to pack up and go?
Having this criteria in mind before you put your home-preparedness plans in motion will help keep you focused during times of panic. Know when you need to drop what you’re doing and get out and don’t be afraid to leave earlier than planned if you feel unsafe.
Don’t Return to Your Home without Permission
If you do evacuate, be prepared to leave for good, or at least for an extended period of time. Don’t return to your home without checking in with the proper authorities first. Don’t assume your neighborhood is safe again when there’s a possibility it might not be.
This is why it’s a good idea to keep a battery-powered radio in your emergency wildfire kit. You’ll be able to tune into the news and stay updated on the status of the wildfire.
Hopefully you’ll never need to use these disaster plans–but if a wildfire ever strikes, you’ll be glad you made them. Remember that when it comes to wildfires and other natural disasters, a detailed plan can be the most powerful tool in your toolkit.
Patricia Sarmiento loves swimming and running. She channels her love of fitness and wellness into blogging about health and health-related topics. She played sports in high school and college and continues to make living an active lifestyle a goal for her and her family. She lives with her husband, two children, and their shih tzu in Maryland.
Written & Photographed by Zoe van Duivenbode, Marketing Intern
I recently drove to one of our central cascade properties to meet with field forester, Brian Mize, to learn more about how we plan to manage and restore our forests. Prior to my visit, I was unfamiliar with logging as a tool for restoration and was eager to find out how removing certain stands of trees can actually benefit the forest by improving health, increasing fire resiliency and creating habitat for wildlife.
Over the last decade, fire suppression has been a high priority among land managers and owners in hopes to protect property and habitat. However, this push away from fire has slowly changed the landscape of our native forests, allowing for certain species to thrive where they typically would not and creating denser tree stands. This shift creates a problem for land managers and nearby communities because it increases the risk and severity of forest fires. Certain trees, like grand fir, are more vulnerable to forest fires and have become more common among tree stands in central cascade forests. Also, forests with high density stands forces trees to compete with each other for resources, increases the amount fuels for fires and reduces habitat suitability for wildlife.
The Nature Conservancy plans to apply restoration thinning techniques on select units of our central cascade properties to create a more historic and variable forest structure which will benefit communities, wildlife and nature. On July 9th, TNC is inviting the public to one of our central cascade properties to see our restoration first hand and learn more about the benefits of restoration thinning. Our field forester will share more about the science behind thinning, and will answer any questions about our restoration work.
Join us for Forestry Day and see our work!
Learn more about our Central Cascade Preserves
Photographed by Nathan Hadley, Northwest Photographer
We recently went to our project in Oak Creek to restore the forest to health, prior to the advent of wildfire suppression efforts. We've partnered with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Yakama Nation and the U.S. Forest Service to thin brush and cut trees for timber to pay for most of the project. Some of the trees end up on creeks and rivers. They help sediment build up and restore fish habitat, also lost with wildfire suppression. This project is also a great opportunity to provide the local community with work and renewed habitat for wildlife. See photos from the day in the slideshow above!
Written and Photographed by John Marshall, Northwest Photographer
These photos from the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County illustrate the necessity of controlled burning along with forest thinning to enable our forests to withstand catastrophic fires.
Historically, fires would occur here ever few years, including some intentional burning by Native Americans. Fire suppression in the last century has created an unnaturally high density of trees, multi-layered canopies, and a high accumulation of dead wood which fuels fire. You can see this in the first photo, taken in 2010, where a once-open ponderosa pine forest in the Sinlahekin Valley has filled in with small pines and Douglas-firs.
In 2010, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, assisted by The Nature Conservancy, began a project to address these concerns by removing small understory trees by thinning and subsequent controlled burning.
In the second photo, taken in June of 2015, you can see the same stand of ponderosa forest. First it was thinned and then careful controlled burns were set to clear out the fuels. Not only is it safer from fire, but grass forage for bighorn sheep, browse for deer, and berries for birds increased.
For a week In late August of 2015, the treatments were tested by the Lime Belt Fire, a portion of the vast 133,000-acre Okanogan Complex Fire, which burned through the south half of the wildlife area. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Hand-lines, bulldozers, water drops, and retardant were all used. Efforts to thin and burn prior to the wildfire made fire-fighting efforts more successful and safer to implement.
Photographer John Marshall visited the same stand in October of 2015. As you can see in the third photo, where both thinning and prescribed burning were completed, most of the ponderosas survived the wildfire.
The fourth photo shows a stand that had been thinned, but not yet prescribed burned, and you can see thatmost of the ponderosas were killed by the wildfire. In general throughout the Okanogan Complex Fire, areas that had been logged but not burned fared poorly in the wildfire.
Fragmented ownership and poor management have left our state’s forests primed for catastrophic fire.
Written by Robin Stanton, Media Relations Manager
Photograph by Benj Drummond/LightHawk
Weaving the land back together and implementing big restoration actions that cross ownership boundaries will help prevent megafires.
If you look at a map that shows ownership boundaries in Washington’s eastern forests, you’ll notice a distinctive checkerboard pattern of public and private ownership. That’s a legacy of the land grants of the 1860s, when the federal government gave alternating square miles of land to the railroads to encourage them to reach the West Coast.
Today, that fragmented pattern has led to more development in the midst of the forest where it’s vulnerable to fire and breaks up habitat and recreation areas. It also means forests have been managed piecemeal, without a holistic, science-based plan for largescale restoration.
The Conservancy has been working for more than 10 years to fix this fragmentation, by bringing more of these private lands into public and conservation ownership. Our most recent acquisition of 48,000 acres in the Central Cascades is a big step forward in this work.
A recent study by Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service scientists show that 2.88 million acres of eastern Washington forests are in need of restoration, both by thinning trees and using controlled burning to clear out forest fuels that have accumulated for a century.
We’ve led the way with a pilot restoration project on 20,000 acres in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area west of Yakima where we thinned understory trees and shrubs according to a carefully designed plan: Cutting away small 10- and 20-year-old Douglas firs gives 400-year-old ponderosa pines light, air and water to thrive. Thinning smaller trees also prepares the forest for controlled burning, which further enhances the forest’s resilience to future wildfires.
Today, we’re working through the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative (see below) to plan and implement an 80,000-acre restoration project in the Manastash-Taneum area east of Cle Elum. This collaborative restoration will encompass federal, state, and Conservancy forest lands and is expected to get underway this year.
It’s essential that the Conservancy and committed partners act quickly to restore eastern Washington forests to make them less vulnerable to megafires. Forest collaboratives comprised of private stakeholders, as well as state and federal agencies, are coming together across the West to overcome barriers and find solutions to the issue of improving forests’ resiliene and health. The Nature Conservancy is engaged in and is a leading partner of many of these collaborative groups in Washington:
Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy took a lead role in forming the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative in 2006 with the aim of bringing together state and federal agencies, the Yakama Nation, and private landowners to increase the pace, quality, and scale of restoration projects across 2.3 million acres of eastern Washington forest.
Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition: The Nature Conservancy is engaged in the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, a group of diverse stakeholders working together since 2002 to promote forest restoration that is beneficial to forest health, public safety, and local economies. The coalition’s priorities, such as fuels reduction projects, serve as examples of successful collaborative work for the public and similar organizations.
North Central Washington Forest Collaborative: The Conservancy is a leading partner in initiating The North Central Washington Forest Collaborative.
The Nature Conservancy helped to establish the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, a coalition of agencies and stakeholders working to safely introduce more prescribed fire into the landscape.