Bringing Fire Back onto the Quinault Indian Nation

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.