Spring and Summer Smoke in the Hills around Paradise

It may have begun in the few days since I wrote this, but the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) has scheduled controlled burns on eight wildlife areas for this spring and summer. The exact dates will be weather-dependent, of course, as the department begins its efforts to treat 18,000 of the one million acres of public ground it manages, by 2021. The intention, of course, is to reduce the risk of wildfire and improve habitat for animals such as deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Around Paradise, burns are scheduled for small parts of the Colockum, L.T. Murray, and Oak Creek Wildlife Areas.

DFW operates the only prescribed fire management team in the state – a team of five full-time foresters and 18 burn-team members. The DFW team posts signs and looks after public safety before and during burns, and will then monitors each burn continuously until it is completely out. There will be smoke, of course, and some may find its way to our homes. Still, these are specific and short-term burns which greatly reduce the risk of those high-intensity wildfires we’d prefer to avoid. “Prescribed fire” treatments have been paying off for years; just last August, the team’s work on the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area was instrumental in helping suppress the Boyd’s wildfire in Ferry County.

I think we are pretty clearly understanding that it is no longer a question of “if” we will have huge and dangerous wildfires, but rather “when” (and just how much we may be able reduce their damage). Thus, you and I have looked at the need for, and benefits of, prescribed burns a couple times over the last few years.

You may recall the thoughts of Dale Swedburg, a passionate proponent of fire, just prior to his 2016 retirement as the Okanogan Land Manager for DFW. Over his career, Dale became a student of fire and its value to the public lands he devoted his life to protecting – lands which literally evolved as fire-dependent ecosystems. He will tell you how regular, naturally-occurring, forest fires benefit the lands and the plant communities which evolved with them. And he will remind you that the raging, super-hot and impossible-to-control megafires tearing through the overgrown forests we have created by preventing fires are almost never friends of nature – or people. Prescribed burning – properly executed – is a way of re-creating the natural periodic burns which most of the world’s forest ecosystems have known for millennia, while significantly reducing the risk of our ever-more-common megafires.

Obviously, those planning the burns on DFW-managed lands over the next couple years share Dale’s passion for controlled burns. The benefits are many.

One of the primary benefits of fire is the removal of all those crowded trees and ground cover (commonly called “fuels reduction”). The mechanical clearing of forests and cleanup of flammable ground cover accomplishes such fuels reduction, of course. The value of that is seen in the surge of Firewise Programs protecting families and properties around us and across the West. The challenge? There is probably not enough money anywhere to hire enough loggers to beat the natural fuels buildup in our forests. A controlled burn is faster, cheaper, and it does things no mechanical clearing can do.

In forest ecosystems, fire: reduces insect pests and disease; removes non-native species which often crowd out natives; increases forage for game and other wildlife; recycles soil nutrients; supports the growth of the trees, wildflowers, shrubs and other plants which make up a healthy ecosystem; provides better habitat for threatened and endangered species of all types; and proper (or prescribed) fire limits numbers of super-hot megafires.

Smoke, of course, is the biggest source of complaints about forest fires. Still, in the forest, a wide range of native plant species need smoke (often with heat) to properly germinate and grow. Indeed, there is some evidence of buckbrush (an important ungulate forage plant) seed lying dormant in soil for two hundred years before germinating after a fire.

The USDA Forest Service has a great site for finding research on fire effects on plants and various regimes. Check out www.feis-crs.org/feis/. At this site, you learn things that will change how your friends look at you the next time you discuss forest fires.

Of course, there are groups opposed to the use of prescribed fire. If you want a sense of the challenges, see the website of Citizens Against Polluted Air: prescribedburns.com/index.html.

Any of the fire pros will admit that smoke is the big problem – but “no fire” is not an option. Is it better to have small expected fires or unpredictable megafires?

There will be fires. Watch for the planned burns around us and in eastern Washington in the next few months. Let’s hope they do their job.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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