Washington’s fire season: more than smoke and ash

Washington’s fire season: more than smoke and ash

ConservationNWAdmin / Sep 26, 2017 / Forest Field Program, Protecting Wildlands, Wildfire

A valley in the Pasayten Wilderness after 2017’s Diamond Creek Fire, showing a natural ‘mosaic’ burn pattern. Photo: Michael Liu, USFS Methow Valley Ranger District

Perspective on the 2017 fire season from Dave Werntz, our Science and Conservation Director, who works out of our Twisp field office. Research shows that fire suppression and old-growth logging have transformed our fire-prone forests, increasing the risk of uncharacteristic fire events, especially under a changing climate. A combined approach of strategic thinning and prescribed fire, restoring old trees, and greater preparedness is the best approach to improve forest health and protect communities. For more, please visit: www.conservationnw.org/our-work/wildlands/fire/

By Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director

Although snow and rain have recently fallen in the high country, it’s been dry here in the Methow Valley for more than 100 days straight. We’re accustomed to a seasonal drought in the Pacific Northwest along with its fire season, but the one this summer has been particularly strong.

This matters because dry vegetation is more prone to combustion. Heat speeds the drying process. This year, abundant winter and spring moisture boosted vegetation growth. With record heat and drying in the region, forests were primed for burning.

British Columbia had its most extensive fire season in history with more than one hundred fires burning across 2.2 million acres. Nationally, we’ve exceeded the ten year average of 5.4 million acres by over two million acres. While recent rains have slowed progress, at the autumn equinox last week there were 41 large fires burning 1.5 million acres across six western states, mostly in Oregon and Montana.

In Washington, three large fires – Diamond Creek, Jolly Mountain, and Norse Peak – have burned over 200,000 acres. Several other smaller fires, including Uno Peak and Noisy Creek, were also active and numerous blazes ignited but were short lived. Much of the fire was in remote, higher elevation areas in the Pasayten, Alpine Lakes, and Norse Peak wilderness, although some reached closer to homes and structures in the Teanaway valley, near Crystal Mountain, and east of Wenatchee.

Air quality across the state has been extremely poor quality due to smoke, ash, and fine particulates, measuring some days to be among the worst in the nation. Persistent high pressure systems off the coast blocked our usual moderating marine weather influence–those moist onshore flows with a light wind so common in Western Washington–allowing vast banks of smoke to persist over the region for weeks.

It’s tempting to characterize fire as destructive, and it is when homes burn, lives are endangered, and communities are displaced and disrupted. But fire is essential to our forests. Among other ecological services, fire creates one of the most biologically diverse and ecologically important habitat types in western conifer forests. The nexus of new open conditions and unburned remnants provides habitat for a unique array of plants and animals. Black-backed woodpeckers, lodgepole pine, deer and elk, and many other species require periodic fire for sustenance. Forests with fire are healthy forests.

That’s not to say fire has no serious consequences. The Diamond Creek fire in the Pasayten Wilderness has burned through another section of core habitat that supports Washington’s only reproductive Canada lynx population, an area already impacted by a series of fires in recent decades. Fires in British Columbia have temporarily halted our fisher reintroductions into the North Cascades, until the condition of fisher source populations can be assessed. The Sutherland Canyon fire in Washington’s arid grasslands killed endangered pygmy rabbits at a breeding facility used for recovery efforts.

It’s a bit daunting to think that fire seasons like what we had this year are expected to occur more frequently as the planet continues to warm. Climate scientists predict increased summer temperatures and drier conditions which will bring more fire and bigger fire events, continuing a trend of longer fire seasons, and an increase in fire activity and size happening since the 1970s. As the climate warms, some areas may not be able to sustain their current forest cover, leading to an altered suite of flora and fauna.

Still, there is a lot we can do. Along with agency, industry, and conservation partners, Conservation Northwest’s Forest Field Program is working hard to advance policies and actions, so when these fires come, our forests are resilient and able to withstand the fire and vigorously recover. At the same time, forests restored to more resilient conditions provide better habitat, and reduce risks to human communities and values. Our objective is to restore forest structure and spatial patterns, so that fires generally burn with the intensity and pattern under which the forests and wildlife have evolved over millennia, and fire managers have safer working conditions.

The starting point is landscape evaluations to understand current conditions and strategically prioritize restoration actions in the portion of the landscape that has departed from historic conditions due to decades of fire suppression and old-growth logging.

The result is projects like the Mission Restoration Project, covering a 50,000 acre landscape outside of Twisp, Washington. Here, with guidance from us and support from our local forest collaborative, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has proposed conducting 11,000 acres of prescribed fire, 8,000 acres of non-commercial thinning, a couple thousand acres of commercial thinning, and decommissioning 30-50 miles of unnecessary roads. We’re involved in similar restoration projects underway near Lake Wenatchee and in the Kettle Range.

However, there are threats to this progress and the collaborative relationships that make it possible. As predictable as the summer drought and seasonal fires are the opportunistic politicians that appear during fires, maneuvering for regulatory changes to make national forests easier to log. They’re mostly missing the point.

To get meaningful results, we need intelligent and thoughtful actions that are grounded in science, strategically prioritized, and focused on restoring fire, landscape spatial patterns, and older fire-resilient trees. Sure, commercial thinning that supports local mills and restoration jobs has a key role, but aggressive logging solely to extract timber value across huge areas won’t prevent fires – just ask British Columbia.

Last weekend my family and I visited Tiffany Lake west of Loomis State Forest, a botanical area that burned a decade ago in the Tripod Fire. It is lush with flowers turned to seed and berry, young lodgepole and spruce seedlings reaching skyward, and a mosaic of burned and unburned overstory. There are pikas, chipmunks, Douglas squirrels, and tons of birds. In a few more years, it’ll probably be prime Canada lynx habitat full of snowshoe hares.

If there is a lesson from Tiffany Lake, it’s that we need to take the long view, continuing collaborative ecological restoration to improve forest and landscape resilience to broadly accommodate and benefit from fire. Doing so will serve the long-term interests of people, wildlife, and the forests of the Pacific Northwest.