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Wildfires and Northwest forests

Science shows that logging alone will not solve our wildfire problem. A combined approach of selective thinning, prescribed burning, and greater preparedness is the best solution to improve forest health and protect communities.

Wildfire is a natural occurrence in dry forests throughout the West. And many plant , insect and wildlife species have adapted over the eons to benefit from or even require a natural and regular fire cycle. 

Fire is a natural occurrence in the Kettle Range in eastern Washington. Photo by Tim Coleman

We're working with state and federal agencies, elected officials, local residents and other organizations to push for state and regional policies that support forest resilience and community preparedness. 

Science shows that logging alone will not solve our wildfire problem. A combined approach of selective thinning, prescribed burning, and greater preparedness is the best solution to improve forest health and protect communities.

Read more in this March 2016 blog post: Prescribed fire and wildfire

Our Forest Field Program and wildfires

Our Forest Field Program works on state and federal forest and grass lands, with one of our goals being more resilient forests and watersheds that are capable of withstanding natural disturbances, including those bolstered by climate change, as well as safer towns and communities. Over the years, we’ve shaped key parts of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Restoration Strategy and the Colville National Forest’s Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, which guide federal actions to restore landscape and stand conditions disrupted by decades of fire suppression and harmful logging. 

In the field, our focus has been collaborative work on dozens of projects to improve ecological resilience through thinning small trees, protecting large old fire resistant trees, conducting prescribed burns, removing harmful roads, and restoring landscape patterns that drive ecological processes like fire. Outcomes include restored fish and wildlife habitat, improved management effectiveness and efficiency, and good quality local jobs.

Early indications also show that that our investments in forest and wildlands restoration helped shape the way the 2015 fires played out on the Eastern Washingtonlandscape. In several places, it appears this work favorably affected fire growth and behavior.

Statements and updates on our wildfire program:

Other resources from Washington State

Fire and forests talking points

  • Federal lands and environmental regulations are not to blame for our recent wildfires. The extreme weather we experienced in 2015 made nearly everything more susceptible to burning across state, private, tribal, and federal lands. Of particular note were heavily-logged areas that burned just as hot as everything else. A large proportion of the fire (and the most expensive and damaging fire) was shrub-steppe, grasslands, and sparse forests.
  • Restoration projects, including forest thinning and controlled and prescribed burning, have been shown to have benefits for forest resilience and wildfire response and suppression. Restoration projects have also served as important beachheads for fire crews working to contain fires near communities. Social and financial factors limit the use of effective prescribed and controlled burning treatments.
  • Wildfires are a natural part of healthy wild landscapes. However, we must work to prepare for fire by increasing forest resilience and community awareness and planning.
  • Landscape evaluations identify thinning and burning priorities, and watershed restoration work to improve ecological resilience over large areas.
    Recent forest restoration projects and 2015 fire perimeters.
    Recent forest restoration projects and 2015 fire perimeters.
  • With proper community preparedness, in some places fires can do forest restoration work for us, killing small trees and pruning the large. Letting fire work for us can helpful, but to do so requires increased community preparedness so we can allow more fires to burn. 
  • Logging alone will not solve our wildfire problem. A combined approach of selective thinning, prescribed and controlled burning and greater community preparedness is the best solution. 

Leaving trees in place following wildfire:

Letting standing dead or "snag" trees remain after wildfire helps wildlife and forests recover following wildfire. Learn more about the value of snags.

Post-fire logging of the big trees that remain after a fire has been a growing trend in the West. But it is now being heartily questioned by both scientists and the public. A growing number of studies today show that post-fire logging does nothing to restore the landscape, though that might be the intent. Logging following fires actually harms lands, waters and forests and delays ecosystem recovery.

Leaving trees standing after wildfires:

  • Protects against soil erosion and maintains soil nutrition. Post-fire logging compacts the soil and leaves it nutrient poor.
  • Leaves the stand structure that provides shade and cover for other young trees and seedlings. Post-fire logging also kills naturally regenerating seedlings through the direct disturbance of logging machinery. Natural fires often burn in a patchy fashion, leaving green trees behind, which can be harmed in the logging process.
  • Reduces fire risk - since logging leaves behind many fine fuels of branches and slash providing tinder for new flames.
  • Aids all wildlife. Leaving the recently killed, large trees, which, either standing or on the ground, provides critical cover and habitat for recovering wildlife and plant life.

For many decades following fire, trees, both dead and alive, have powerful, irreplaceable value as wildlife habitat. Standing, broken-topped live or dead trees in burned forests provide homes and food for a myriad of birds, insects, and other wildlife. They are a valuable foundation for the healthy recovery of future forests.

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