Posted by: columbiahighlands | August 24, 2010

Legacy of the Big Burn: wildfire management in Northeast Washington

When the catastrophic wildfires of the summer of 1910 finally subsided, they left behind more than the three million acres of ravaged forest, 85 lives lost and several towns swept off the map. They left behind a legacy of U.S. Forest Service wildfire management, the repercussions of which are still being felt today.

In response to the wildfires, the fledgling Forest Service committed to systematic wildfire suppression across the lands in its jurisdiction, culminating in the “10 AM” rule, which stated that all wildfires had to be extinguished by 10 AM the day after they were spotted.

The centennial of the so-called Big Burn offers the opportunity to ask the questions, What is the likelihood of a fire of similar magnitude occurring again? And how can we prevent such conflagrations?

Over the course of the twentieth century, the Forest Service did its job exceedingly well, such that fire was excluded from many of our nation’s forests. However, the last two decades have produced much research that demonstrates wildfires are a natural, and integral, part of healthy forest ecosystems.

Wildfires provide many ecosystem benefits. Game animals thrive after wildfires, because the nutritional content of many browse plants increases after fire, and openings in the forest canopy allow for the spread of such plants. Wildfires naturally thin diseased and weakened trees. And fire-hardened trees stand for decades longer than those that die from other causes, providing prime habitat for insect-eating woodpeckers and other cavity-dwelling creatures.

Unfortunately, decades of wildfire exclusion have actually increased the risk of catastrophic crown fires in many of our drier eastside and interior Rocky Mountain forests.

In the Colville National Forest, stakeholders have taken an innovative approach to healthy fire management. The Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition and Colville National Forest have supervised several forest thinning projects with the aim of reducing fuel loading and producing saleable logs, and in some cases underburning stands simply to improve forest health.. The aim of one such project near Bangs Mountain was to reduce the risk of wildfire to adjacent public and private lands near a popular recreation area by decreasing the amount of dead material on the ground and reducing the density of the forest canopy.

The benefits to such projects are two-fold: local timber companies can market the logs, and the wider spacing of trees more closely resembles natural conditions and decreases the likelihood of a devastating crown fire.

These projects demonstrate an approach to forest management that balances the need for healthy, natural fire regimes with the region’s timber needs.

“Fire can be a relatively inexpensive tool that helps lower risk of more dangerous fires,” said Tim Coleman, Program Director of Conservation Northwest and member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition. “We can’t eliminate fire from forests. Nor would we want to.  Fire is as elemental to the health of our dry forest ecosystems as rain.”

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