Sowing Small Seedlings into a Scorched, Ashen Landscape

A fire-scorched landscape will eventually spring back to life — but it can use a helping hand. In May, in two burned-out areas of Kittitas County in Central Washington, thousands of tiny seedlings were placed — some brought in by helicopter — into ash-laden soil.

Contract crew planting trees on the Rock Creek Fire site (Photo by Greg Mackey

The Arbor Day Foundation provided a grant for us to purchase native trees for our habitat restoration efforts. We partnered with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Department of Natural Resources to plant more than 15,000 ponderosa-pine seedlings on 130 acres ravaged by severe forest fires around Taneum and Rock creeks.

DNR helicopter slinging seedlings into the Rock Creek fire as part of a pilot training exercise. (Photo by Greg Mackey)

In the north fork of the Taneum River's drainage, our Field Forester Brian Mize spent two days with a crew planting 8,300 ponderosa pine seedlings on 70 acres of ground that burned in 2014. This is the third and final planting project for this burned landscape —  since 2015, we have planted more than 80,000 trees on more than 400 acres of this watershed!

Southeast, where the Rock Creek fire occurred in 2016, Oak Creek Wildlife Area Manager Greg Mackey collaborated with the state Department of Natural resources as part of a pilot training program. Because it's a hard-to-reach area, helicopters slung boxes of seedlings into the burned-out area. A contract crew, which made an arduous hike into the area, planted 8,300 ponderosa-pine seedlings on 60 acres over two days.

Excellent microsite planting location on north aspect of burned stump (Photo by Brian Mize)

Why is it so important to go in and replant the scorched landscape so soon after a fire? We're re-establishing the forest and choosing species such as ponderosa pine that are more resilient to fire and future changes brought on by climate change, such as drought. Called "plugs," the tree seedlings are grown in nurseries for about a year, reaching about 3" to 5" tall. In these two burned-out areas, the ground they are transplanted into contains a wonderful mix of ash from the fires in addition to ash from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. This nutrient-rich mix, which contains needed minerals and a higher pH, encourages the small saplings to grow and thrive.

Now we wait and see how the little seedlings do. Rain this summer would be a boon for them, and we'll be checking again on them in the coming years.