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Wildfire’s Cycle of Renewal on the Eastern Washington Landscape

Written by Peter Goldmark, Commissioner of Public Lands, Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Photographs by Washington State Department of Natural Resources

In mid-June, I stood with TNC’s Washington State Director Mike Stevens and a group of biologists and foresters at the top of Three Devils Road, in the heart of the devastation wreaked by Washington’s 2014 Carlton Complex fire. As we looked across the valley in Okanogan County, we saw hills spiked with blackened trees, almost as far as the eye could see.  

Under the glare of the June sun, I felt a renewed sense of grief for the loss of homes, habitat and forestlands taken by that firestorm, which had destructive power and speed unmatched in Washington’s wildfire history.

As Washington’s elected Commissioner of Public Lands, I have responsibility for the Department of Natural Resources, which manages 5.6 million acres of state-owned aquatic, forest, agricultural and rangelands. As part of that responsibility, I oversee the state’s major wildfire fighting force, which protects 13 million acres of state and private lands. I am also charged with protecting forest health.  

The long-term health and resilience of this magnificent landscape was the purpose of our mid-June trip. Along with Mike and his TNC team, we had with us DNR foresters who have decades of experience in fighting fire and planting trees over these hills. In addition, we had renowned University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin, whose definitive work on forest ecology is essential reading for those of us who care deeply about this topic. University of Washington professor Jon Bakker, an ecologist with expertise in ecological restoration, brought an additional dimension of knowledge to our group.

What can we do to build resilience and help healthy forests flourish in this region? As we walked the hills and pondered, we noted how dry-pine forests in eastern Washington have extended their range over the last 100 years. There was discussion among us about the effect of that extension on forest health, and whether it might be the result of historic fire suppression.  

As we looked closer at the burned landscape, we saw grass and wildflowers on some of the hills. Proud, old “yellowbelly” Ponderosa pines, native to our region, were standing scorched but alive in their groves. In other areas, small timber salvage operations were underway to assist local economic recovery and help DNR meet its obligations to the state trust.

While the people and the landscape will long bear the marks of the Carlton Complex, the cycle of renewal of this fire-prone landscape has begun again.  This time around, we should strive to build resilience into these native forests that will help them better endure the inevitable vicissitudes of wildfire.