CNW Fire Dispatch #12 – Inside the fire lines

CNW Fire Dispatch #12 – Inside the fire lines

Conservation Northwest / Sep 11, 2015 / Forest Field Program, Wildfire

A mosaic of burned and unburned timber in the North Star Fire area. The North Star Fire burned in the vicinity of several of our recent forest restoration projects. Photo: Jay Kehne

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth of our fire dispatches from staff and colleagues that live or work in the areas impacted by this year’s fires. 

A forest ecologist, Dave Werntz lives and works in the Methow Valley community of Twisp. 

For more information on this issue, please contact dwerntz (at)
By Dave Werntz, Science and Conservation Director

Fires are intense and sometimes frightening agents of transformation. They draw from the basic elements of topography, vegetation, and weather to sculpt mosaics on landscapes held dear by countless people and vital for innumerable wild creatures. But while fire maps show neat lines and news reports describe acres burned (or too often, “devastated”), we know from past fire research that within the burn perimeter fire behavior is immensely diverse but not without pattern.

Looking at those patterns today, early indications are that our investments in forest and wildlands restoration helped shape the way the 2015 fires played out on the landscape. In several places, it appears this work favorably affected fire growth and behavior.

Ecologists describe historic or characteristic fire behavior according to its extent, frequency and severity. Before aggressive fire suppression began many years ago, many of our region’s shrub-steppe grasslands burned frequently with small, high-intensity fires. Slightly upslope, dry pine and mixed-conifer forests burned with similar frequency but with less intensity. Near mountain tops, wetter forests burned hot over larger areas during years of drought, often at intervals that could span centuries. On the mid-elevation slopes in between there was lots of variability in fire frequency, size and intensity.

With this knowledge, Conservation Northwest’s Forest Field Program has been preparing for the hot summer drought of 2015 for more than a decade. Our goal is resilient forests and watersheds that are capable of withstanding natural disturbances, including those bolstered by climate change, as well as safer towns and communities.

Click for a full-size PDF map of our forest restoration projects and 2015 fire perimeters.

Recent forest restoration projects and 2015 fire perimeters.
Recent forest restoration projects and 2015 fire perimeters.
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.

Some of the forest restoration projects Conservation Northwest helped finance and lead in north-central Washington in recent years include:

  • Crawfish Project in 2013 (NE of Riverside)
  • Bailey Project in 2010 (N of Crawfish)
  • Lost Project in 2009 (SW of Republic)
  • Frosty Project in 2007 (W of Republic)
  • Aeneas Project in 2007 (Aeneas Valley)
  • Mutton Project in 2006 (NW of Conconully)
  • Hungry Hunter Project in 2004 (NW of Pateros)

As a society, we’ve tended to invest effort in the drier forest types where the best opportunities exist for productive outcomes. This summer, a lot of acres and lots of different landscapes burned. Fires crossed throughstate, private, tribal, and federal areas and touched shrub-steppe grasslands, old wild forests, industrial timber, grazing allotments, and most everything in between. During this exceptionally hot, dry summer, everything seemed prone to burn.

We’re on the edge of our seats waiting to see how our efforts have fared under these conditions; to learn how fire interacted with restoration projects. Initial observations from agency officials with access behind the gates or working inside the fire lines are intriguing.

The Forest Service reports that behavior of the Tunk Block fire northeast of Omak changed significantly for the better when it reached completed restoration projects. Similar results were reported on State lands at the Similkameen and Sinlahekin Wildlife Areas. Higher in the mountains, the Black Canyon/MacFarlane Creek fire in the Methow’s Chelan-Sawtooth Range was confined by older fires on two sides.

As we develop more information in the coming days and weeks, lessons from these fires will inform our future practices and policy. Scientists tell us that the fire seasons of 2014 and 2015 are unlikely to be anomalies in the coming decades. It’s up to all of us to work together for a future in Eastern Washington with healthy, resilient forests, watersheds, and wild ecosystems and vibrant, well-prepared communities.

For the latest official fire updates, we recommend Inciwebthis GIS map, and the Okanogan County Emergency ManagementChelan County Emergency ManagementColville Tribes Emergency ServicesStevens County Fire District #1 and Ferry County Sheriff’s Office / 911 Facebook pages.