Batterman Fire near East Wenatchee burns critical shrub-steppe habitat
Conservation Northwest / Jul 08, 2021 / Sagelands, Wildfire
2021 Fire Dispatch #1: Wildfire perilously close to burning lek sites for endangered sage grouse near Badger Mountain
*Editor’s Note: During the big wildfires that burned across eastern Washington in 2015, we published a series of”dispatches” from our staff living and working in communities affected by fire. As 2021’s fire season as gotten off to a historically challenging start, we’ve again encouraged our team to share their perspectives from the field.
BY JAY KEHNE, SAGELANDS PROGRAM LEAD
Here we go again. As landowners, conservationists, wildlife, and the general public are all still trying to recover from last September’s unprecedented Pearl Hill, Cold Springs, and Evans Canyon Fires that burned more than 700,000 acres of shrub-steppe in Okanogan, Douglas, and Kittitas counties, we now have the Batterman Fire in Douglas County outside of East Wenatchee.
With more than 14,000 acres of prime sage grouse habitat, cattle pastures, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage and cropland burned already, it’s heart-wrenching to be in this position again, especially so early in the summer fire season. There has to be another way forward to respond to our wildfire future in central and eastern Washington (and with the changing climate, increasingly western Washington, too).
Luckily the Batterman Fire appears to have slowed and be on the way to containment, but the damage will be long lasting. It appears this fire is close to burning through the largest remaining breeding location (known as a lek) for Washington sage grouse, an endangered population already stressed from last fall’s fires. It has also destroyed acres of important forage for cattle grazing, land planted to grass and shrubs for a host of other wildlife through the Conservation Reserve Program, farmers’ wheat fields, and several outbuildings including historic locations. Luckily no human lives were lost even though local farmers and ranchers livelihoods have been greatly affected.
In shrub-steppe and arid grasslands, preventing invasive plants like cheatgrass, restoring wetlands, beaver ponds and other natural fuelbreaks, and improving fire readiness and response times through programs like Rangeland Fire Protection Associations are all tactics that can be employed to reduce the impacts of severe fires.
We hope the Shrub-Steppe Recovery Proviso passed by the Washington State Legislature last session will put dollars in motion to help landowners recover from this newest fire as well as last years’ fires. And we hope this was not a fire caused by irresponsible human action such as fireworks, or other activities that could have been prevented.
We hope that our legislators will now consider Rangeland Fire Protection Association legislation to allow trained, equipped local landowners to respond with quicker initial attack on fires when they start. We hope our sagelands habitat and bunchgrass forage areas will become a bigger priority for firefighting efforts whenever fires occur. We hope for a better future for Washington’s arid lands so critical to the local people and wildlife that make this their home.
Onward we go into an uncertain future. The Batterman Fire is unlikely to be the last conflagration that central and eastern Washington’s shrub-steppe and dry forests face in 2021.
Editor’s Note: Living and working in Omak in north-central Washington, Jay Kehne is no stranger to wildfires. He wrote about his frontline experiences with the Cold Springs & Pearl Hill Fire last September. We’re grateful to have Jay’s decades of experience in natural resources management on our team leading our Sagelands Heritage Program.