Sagelands wildfires, wildlife, recovery and resilience

Sagelands wildfires, wildlife, recovery and resilience

Conservation Northwest / Sep 16, 2020 / Climate Change, Our Staff, Sagelands, Wildfire

Editor’s Note: Living and working in Omak in north-central Washington, Jay Kehne is no stranger to wildfires, and sadly, this is not the first time that he’s watched large fires burn around his community, or sheltered human and animal refugees at his home. We’re grateful to have Jay’s knowledge, generosity and decades of experience in natural resources management on our teamleading our Sagelands Heritage Program. For a great breakdown on distinctions between fires in shrub-steppe grasslands and those in dry forests, check out this August 2018 blog from Jay.

If you’d like to support fire relief efforts, we highly recommend the Community Foundation of North Central Washington’s Fire Relief Fund. Efforts are also available to support local farmers we work with, and we’ll be sharing more information on wildlife-specific recovery efforts in the days and weeks ahead, such as bitterbrush and water birch planting and pygmy rabbit and sage grouse recovery.


Last Sunday, we watched the start of the Cold Springs & Pearl Hill Fire move up a nearby hillside from my wife’s parents’ house on the Reservation of the Colville Confederated Tribes in north-central Washington’s Okanogan Valley. At the time, we had no idea that these fires would quickly become the largest in Washington state history, together burning more than 400,000 acres, an area greater than the 2015 Okanogan Fires that scorched so much of our valley.

The Cold Springs Fire burns on the Colville Reservation, as seen from Omak. Photo: Jay Kehne

Less than four hours later “Nana and Papa” evacuated to our house in Omak, even though we were also packed and ready to flee if the fire came towards town. By afternoon on Labor Day winds were exceeding 45 miles an hour, and the fire was racing south and east in what experts are now calling a firestorm of historic proportions, accelerated by extreme dry conditions across central Washington, and in fact, much of the state, quickly jumping the mile-wide Columbia River and burning across Douglas County.

My wife’s aunt evacuated from near Bridgeport to our house as well, along with an assortment of horses, dogs and cats. Luckily, our family did not lose property in this fire, but many were not so lucky, and dozens of homes and at least one life were lost.

The areas of Okanogan and Douglas counties burned, including much of the western portion of the Colville Reservation, are critical habitat for threatened wildlife from sage and sharp-tailed grouse to pygmy rabbits and pronghorn antelope, as well as critical mule deer winter range. Almost one-third of the shrub-steppe habitat on the Colville Reservation looks to be burned, taking with it valuable habitat, including for the recently reintroduced antelope as well as sharp-tailed grouse, which have been augmented with birds from Canada. Similar damage occurred south of Ellensburg earlier this month in the Evans Canyon Fire, itself critical range for bighorn sheep, elk and mule deer.

Jay Kehne holding a pygmy rabbit during a rabbit release in Central Washington’s sagelands. Photo: Chase Gunnell

In Douglas County large numbers of sharp-tailed and sage grouse leks (breeding sites) burned, along with important riparian, winter and nesting habitat. With the fires burning as far south as Highway 2 and Moses Coulee, up to half of our state’s remaining Endangered pygmy rabbit population may be lost, a species we’ve worked heavily on that’s still reeling from a 2017 fire.

This part of Washington is also home to vibrant ranching and farming communities, including many partners I work with as part of efforts to maintain, restore and connect shrub-steppe landscapes through Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program. A wildlife supporter and friend, Wade Troutman, lost his ranch and home that had been in the family for four generations. Efforts to support Wade and his family are available on GoFundMe.

Now, a week later, with fires still burning but containment growing, and smoke blanketing the region, we’re only beginning to pick up the pieces, channel resources for relief and recovery efforts, and map out steps towards greater resilience for central Washington’s sagelands, dry forests across the West, and local communities—from my home in the Okanogan to the many others affected.

As I’ve written about before, and Conservation Northwest has said frequently over two decades of work on forest health and fire resilience, regular wildfire is a natural occurrence in dry forests throughout the West, such as those on the east slopes of the Cascades. Fire would naturally be less frequent in shrub-steppe landscapes, typically burning with lower severity, but here too, fire is a natural component of the landscape. Many plant, insect and wildlife species have adapted over eons to benefit from or even require a natural and regular fire cycle.

But the extreme fires across Washington and other Western states this week are anything but natural—ignited by humans and accelerated by climate change and a century of fire suppression. They are a glimpse of what scientists say will become our new normal, even in western Washington. And we can’t simply log or graze our way out of them.

It’s critically important to underscore the difference between Washington’s latest large fires, burning mostly in the shrub-steppe and dry grasslands, from those that burn in the forests, including recent fires in Oregon and even western Washington. Especially in response to illogical calls for more logging in response to fires. Yes, poor forest and wildlands management are part of the overall problem, but so is climate change, human development and a host of other factors. For dry forests, 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.

Prescribed fire is one of our best tools to reduce fire severeity and damage, in both dry forests and the shrub-steppe. Photo: USFS

Here in central Washington’s sagelands, only a fraction of the historic shrub-steppe habitat remains and it is vital for sustaining wildlife. Protecting the remnants is a top priority. Native plants like bitterbrush and sage brush can take decades to recover after severe fire. Water birch will be particularly important for restoring riparian areas; critical ribbons of habitat for many shrub-steppe species. We expect to participate in replanting efforts this fall and next spring, and will have more information to share soon.

We’ll also be working with partners to address the needs of mule deer, elk and antelope for winter range, as well as the needs of ranchers and farmers who require alternate grazing lands and hay provisions while their pastures recover. There may be some opportunity to rebuild burned fences in central Washington and on the Colville Reservation in more wildlife-friendly ways, one small bright spot in all this loss.

Rangeland Fire Protection Associations are another tool we’ve been supporting with partners to give local communities greater tools to respond to fires, though it’s uncertain if even this tactic would have helped given the extreme fire conditions last week. Greater education, outreach and even enforcement will also be needed to reduce human-caused fires, with most of Washington’s large fires attributed to human-ignition, typically accidental.

No matter what started the latest fires, and what contributes to them, we can be sure they won’t be the last. And we must prepare for the future, both immediate needs, and efforts towards greater shrub-steppe and forest resilience and community preparedness.

Firefighters bravely risked it all to save as many homes and buildings as they could and deserve all of our praise. People have a way of coming together in times like these and that’s what I know we will all do. Ranchers will need hay for this winter and  next spring to allow deferral of grazing so burned areas can recover. Fences will need to be rebuilt or removed. And if we learned anything from past megafires like the 2015 Okanogan and 2014 Carlton complex fires it is, the land will recover, the grass coming back first, and with time, the shrub species so important to the wildlife and the people who make a living and call this part of our state their home.

Burned sage-steppe in August 2018 at Gingko State Park near Vantage and the Quilomene Wildlife Area. Photo: Chase Gunnell