Prescribed fire in the time of COVID-19
Conservation Northwest / May 22, 2020 / Forest Field Program, Wildfire
Prescribed burns are postponed to protect vulnerable communities during COVID-19, but our collaborative work to restore ecological resilience continues.
By Michael Liu, Okanogan Forest Lead
Its springtime in the Methow—the wildflowers are blooming and the rivers are rising. If you have been able to get outside, you may have noticed the sky is a little clearer and the air a little cleaner. It’s not your imagination—the lockdowns here and around the world have drastically reduced travel and industrial emissions, resulting in improved air quality.
In addition, in late March the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) announced a pause on all spring prescribed fire efforts on national forests across Oregon and Washington to reduce the risk of smoke pollution to communities affected by COVID-19. With the governor’s stay-at-home order and uncertainties around how to protect those in higher-risk groups for COVID-19, this was a prudent and responsible decision. However, let us hope this pause is temporary and short.
While we all enjoy clearer skies and cleaner air, the reality in Eastern Washington is a landscape that urgently needs active forest restoration. Historic logging of old-growth trees and fire suppression have dramatically altered forest structure. The resulting dense stands of generally younger trees allow fire to spread quickly into treetops and adjacent stands. This combined with a changing climate means wildfires have become more widespread and frequent, and have caused catastrophic loss of life and property.
Through our Forest Field Program, we’re pushing for state and regional policies that support forest resilience and community preparedness, including thinning overcrowded forests, protecting large, old, fire-resilient trees, and much more burning with prescribed fire and managed wildfire. This restores the landscape to historic conditions and the ecological role of fire in maintaining and restoring habitat. It also reduces wildfire intensity and rate of spread, allowing firefighters more options for protecting homes and communities.
A recent study of the 2014 Carlton Complex fire in the Methow conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and USFS concluded forest thinning combined with prescribed fire was effective in modifying the effects of wildfire, even in wind-driven events.
These findings are consistent with previous studies and point to the need for more burning, especially after thinning. How much more? Considering the years of effective fire suppression and limits on prescribed burning due to air quality concerns, a conservative estimate would be double what is currently taking place. Remember, Eastern Washington is a fire-adapted ecosystem, with fire return intervals averaging every 16 years and even more frequently in the drier habitats.
While prescribed burns are put on hold, through our Forest Field Program, we’re still working collaboratively to move restoration projects forward. In efforts with the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, Washington Prescribed Fire Council and elsewhere, we aim to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in Eastern Washington. We are also involved in nascent community efforts to develop biochar facilities, which have the potential to convert some of the forest residue from thinning into charcoal.
There is a strong need for prescribed fire in Eastern Washington’s forests, but the health of communities during this pandemic takes priority. We encourage people sensitive to smoke to consider obtaining HEPA filters for their homes in preparation for the upcoming wildfire season.
The upcoming wildfires season is predicted to be a busy one, and land managers are planning around wildland fire crews will put fires out while maintaining social distancing rules. When restrictions lift and burns can take place without putting additional health concerns onto at-risk populations, we will work with our partners to safely resume plans to restore the health of this fire-adapted landscape, as well as the health of local communities in the long-term.