Fire, Forests, and Communities

Wildfires and Northwest Forests

Wildfire is a natural occurrence in dry forests, shrub-steppe and arid grasslands throughout the West. Many plant, insect and wildlife species have adapted over eons to benefit from or even require a natural and regular fire cycle.

But many of the extreme fires across Washington and other Western states recently are anything but natural—ignited by humans and accelerated by climate change. They are a glimpse of what scientists say will become our new normal, even in Western Washington.

For more than two decades we’ve worked on-the-ground across Washington to restore forests, shrub-steppe and grasslands to increase wildfire resilience, including through forest collaboratives and our Forest Field Program. We’re also represented on the Washington Prescribed Fire Council to help restore natural low-intensity fire cycles to dry forests across the state, and we work in Olympia and Washington, D.C. to improve fire and forest policy at the state and national level.

Bureau of Land Management firefighters ignite a controlled or prescribed burn, one important tool to restore habitat and forest health, and protect local communities. Photo: BLM

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

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.

News on our wildfire work

Our Forest Field Program and wildfires

Our Forest Field Program works on state and federal forests and grasslands, with one of our goals being more resilient forests and watershedsmeaning they’re capable of withstanding natural disturbances, including those bolstered by climate changeas 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.

Our staff join a Wildland Fire Management hearing in Seattle, hosted by Senator Cantwell. Photo: Mitch Friedman

In the field, we’ve collaborated 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 local, good-quality jobs.

Other Fire Resources

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 improve 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, as well as watershed restoration work to improve ecological resilience over large areas.
  • In some places, with proper community preparedness, fires can do forest restoration work for us by killing small trees and pruning large ones. Letting fire work for us can be 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:

Indiscriminate logging won’t stop wildfires or benefit wildlife. But prescribed burns (shown here), selective thinning and management of forests for ecological resilience benefits forests, people and wildlife. Photo: CNW archives

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

Harvesting big trees that remain after a fire has been a growing trend in the West, but the practice is now being heartily questioned by both scientists and the public. A growing number of studies today show post-fire logging does nothing to restore the landscape, though that might be the intent. Logging following fires actually harms land, water and forest, 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 by leaving the large, recently-killed trees, either standing or on the ground, that provide 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.