Healthy or destructive? Putting fire to work for people and nature

Wildfire in Eastern Washington can be catastrophic, but did you know that fire can also be healthy? In fact, natural fires are crucial to the health of the ecosystem — they reduce tree density, allow sunlight to reach lower into the forest and provide nutrients for new growth of trees and plants.  

The Washington Prescribed Fire Council explains that fire-suppression policies, originally intended to keep communities safe and forests healthy, ultimately yielded negative consequences: unprecedented tree density, stockpiled fuels and greater tree death due to insects. This combination leads to very hot, fast-burning, unpredictable fires that are destructive and difficult to control.  

Increasingly, communities are coming together to prepare for, plan and manage fires for the well-being of the planet and of each other. As our climate grows hotter and summer seasons are longer and drier, proactive efforts by communities and land managers become ever more crucial.  

From June to September 2015, more than 1 million acres burned in Washington — marking it the state’s largest wildfire season in history. More than 3,000 firefighters battled these fires — three tragically lost their lives — and President Obama declared a state of emergency.  
In Okanogan, five small fires — originally caused by lightning strikes — merged to form the largest fire complex in state history. The Okanogan Complex Fire burned almost 305,000 acres and forced the evacuations of surrounding towns.

Containing large fires over forests and grasslands requires a significant amount of resources. Risking their lives to combat the Okanogan Complex Fire, more than 1,300 firefighters convened. This makeshift camp was home to many of these firefighters during the grueling weeks of containment. 

In addition to its obvious dangers, catastrophic wildfire burdens ecosystems and communities with long-term consequences, sometimes a result of fighting the fire. Large amounts of fuel and chemicals are used in containment, people are often displaced and local economies and air and water quality suffer. Fire retardant in the Twisp River was an unfortunate, unintended consequence of fighting flames in the Okanogan Complex Fire.  

When used effectively, prescribed fires — also known as controlled burning, hazard-reduction burning or backfiring — allow for cooler burning temperatures, greater control and targeted risk reduction of the forest and non-forest areas where catastrophic wildfire risk is greatest. In short, more prescribed fires mean fewer megafires

Many sprouts and plants remain dormant until they are stimulated by fire and exposed to light when forest trees are thinned, for example, through controlled burns or other healthy forest fire. The charred bark of a ponderosa pine is still visible, while lupine blooms below. 

One goal of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy is to facilitate the formation of “fire-adapted communities” through a learning network to share success stories, obstacles, innovations and concerns. Learning networks are unique in that they make it easier for diverse groups to be fully engaged in creating and sharing solutions that directly impact their families and communities.  

As seasonal shifts, heat rises and droughts increasingly threaten Eastern Washington, a comprehensive effort that brings ecologists, land managers, residents and officials together will be essential to protecting homes, communities and our iconic forest ecosystems — along with the precious resources, like fresh water, clean air and jobs that they provide. 

Photos 1-6 by John Marshall, photo 7 by The Nature Conservancy

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