Prescribed fire and wildfire

Prescribed fire and wildfire

Conservation Northwest / Mar 22, 2016 / Wildfire

Regular small fires can increase the health of dry forests and grasslands. In contrast, the abnormally large fires of recent years, including the Okanogan Complex Fire shown here, can have lasting impacts on wildlands and wildlife. Photo: Justin Haug/WDFW
By Alaina Kowitz, Communications and Outreach Associate

In the wake of the last two wildfire seasons, it’s easy to villainize fire. Last summer, fires blazed through over a million acres of federal, state, private, and tribal lands in Washington state, displacing thousands of people. These days, many of us living in fire-prone landscapes know that it is not a question of if, but when, another fire will be sparked nearby. However, there are tools to create more fire-resilient forests and better safeguard human communities. One of the most important is the application of prescribed or managed fire, and we’re working with lawmakers, agencies and communities to see this tool utilized more frequently.

Wildfires are naturally-occurring events that have shaped and strengthened our ecosystems for thousands of years. Aggressive fire suppression by natural resource management agencies that began in the early 20th century and lasted until the 1970s effectively halted that natural process. Without a natural fire cycle, forest vegetation has become increasingly dense to the point where fires can spread more easily over greater areas, and large, naturally fire-resistant trees like mature ponderosa pines are increasingly at risk from abnormally large fires.

In both shrub-steppe grasslands and timbered forest lands, prescribed burning alone or in conjunction with careful thinning can restore natural forest conditions and help shape the behavior of future wildfires. This prescribed burning is typically done in the fall or spring when wetter conditions make fires easier to control. By thinning small trees and burning out underbrush, prescribed fire can help slow the growth of larger summer fires and provide firefighters with areas to establish clear firelines when needed.

This forest on the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area burned during the 2015 Okanogan fire. The entire area had been thinned in 2013, but only the right half of the photo was treated with prescribed fire in spring 2014. The 2015 fire had little impact on fire-treated area, but it burned hotter and killed more trees on the left side where the timber thinning had not been followed with a prescribed burn. Photo: WDFW

Through our Forest Field Program, Conservation Northwest has worked for over a decade with public agencies and conservation allies to restore forests to their historic fire regime through selective thinning and prescribed burning. In Okanogan County, indications show that our restoration projects helped slow the advance of the 2014 and 2015 fires. For example, the North Star Fire slowed its northern advance last August when it reached restoration areas that had previously been burned. Similar examples can be seen where the Okanogan Complex Fire ran into areas of the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area treated with prescribed fire by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

What makes this kind of management tricky are the discrepancies between resource management agencies. The U.S. Forest Service has a long history of using prescribed burning, but the Washington Department of Natural Resources has halted prescribed burning on their lands. Additionally, under current regulations agencies are required to maintain air quality and prevent excessive smoke from drifting into populated areas.

But as legislators and stakeholders discuss how to best be ready for the hotter summers and drier forests that are projected in coming years, it’s becoming clear that acceptance of prescribed burning is growing and fire is increasingly being seen as a tool to keep forests healthy and communities safe. Several state lawmakers have spearheaded bills in 2016 that would require more prescribed burning on state lands and change restrictions on smoke regulations so that more prescribed burns could be conducted.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that we need to learn to live with fire. As climate change affects weather patterns and raises average summer temperatures, the question to ask is not “how do we get rid of wildfires?” Instead, it’s “how do we want our fire?” Increasing community preparedness in tandem with managing our landscapes using prescribed burning and selective thinning are keys to maintaining resilient forests, safer communities and quality wildlife habitat in the Northwest.

Visit our wildfires and forests webpage for additional talking points and more information on prescribed fire: