By Ryan Haugo, Washington-Idaho Forest Ecologist

The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books.

In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres.  In Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $88 million dollars.  Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration.

Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests.  Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time.  Yet, our management of western forests over the past century has broken this natural link with fire, leaving our forests vulnerable to uncharacteristically large and destructive fire and insect and disease outbreaks.  Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.

In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests.

Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive”.  An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” can be quite blurry.

Last September an intense late summer lightning storm rolled across the Pacific Northwest, starting fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.   That month I had a series of meetings across eastern Washington and northern Idaho.  No matter where I traveled, I couldn’t escape the smoke.  During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt, even when holed up in my hotel room.  No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire”, right?

Not necessarily.  This winter we were finally able to get out and take a look at some of the newly burned forests that had smoked-in my September travels.  Matt Dahlgreen, TNC forester and intrepid explorer, shot a beautiful series of photos from one section of the Wenatchee Complex fires in eastern Washington.

His photos show rejuvenation and restoration, not death and destruction.  These fires had burned with relatively low severity during a time of moderate weather conditions, and the net result were thinned forest stands that will be even more resilient to the next fire.  There were other patches with nearly all of the trees killed, but this occurred in areas where the forest is adapted to “high severity fire” and the bear, elk and other wildlife will greatly benefit.

What determines if a wildfire is good or bad?  Suppression costs?  Property destruction? Air quality? Impacts on wildlife habitat?   Can a fire be good and bad at the same time?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to these questions.  Even a small, seemingly benign prescribed fire produces smoke that can be hazardous to sensitive populations if precautions are not taken.  Even a massive “mega-fire” leaves behind habitat for a number of different wildlife species.  Society weighs the costs and benefits based on the affected values of the time.

The one thing that we know for certain is that in forests across the west there will be more wildfire in the coming years (see recent research by Moritz and colleagues, and Westerling and colleagues).

In the face of this inevitability, our focus at the Conservancy is on promoting resilient natural and human communities.  In the forests that have traditionally supported timber economies, we focus on smart restoration using tools such as mechanical harvests and prescribed fire.

In other forests, we advocate managing wildfires at the right place and time – when the conditions are right.  Just as there is often not a simple answer as to whether a fire is good or bad, there is no one single approach to conserving our forested landscapes.