Agency says the practice is key to healthy forests strategy
By Marcy Stamper
The Methow Valley Ranger District wrapped up its spring prescribed burning about one month ago, but that hasn’t extinguished the debate over the effectiveness and health impacts of these forest treatments.
After years of fire suppression, the U.S. Forest Service has been using prescribed burning as part of its dry-forest restoration strategy since the mid-1990s, according to Meg Trebon, assistant fire management officer for fuels with the Methow Valley Ranger District.
For decades before that, prescribed burning had been used primarily to eliminate piles of slash left over from commercial logging, at least since the early 1960s, said Trebon.
Along with understory thinning and removal of ladder fuels, prescribed burning is intended to restore forests, which have grown dense with small trees and ground vegetation, to ecological balance. “It’s very critical to keep using that tool to create the effects wildfire used to, by scorching lower branches and thinning trees,” said Trebon.
“We live in a fire-adapted — or fire-prone — landscape,” said Susan Prichard, a research scientist and fire ecologist with the University of Washington based in the Methow Valley. “The shrub-steppe and dry forests rely on fire. Plants and animals are adapted.”
“We’re comfortable with the idea of a watershed, but we also need to think in terms of a fireshed, and that brings smoke,” said Prichard. That smoke could come in the spring or fall from prescribed burning or it could be a wildfire outside our backdoor, she said.
Prichard has studied Ponderosa pines that are hundreds of years old with burn scars that show the trees have survived minor burns every five to 25 years. The scars grow around part of the tree to protect it and can be counted like tree rings.
Although efforts to extinguish all fires began after the catastrophic and deadly fires of the 1910s, the Forest Service and other agencies didn’t really get good at it until the 1940s, when they began using aircraft developed in World War II to reach remote locations, said Prichard.
Many wildfire factors
Other factors also contributed to variations in the frequency and severity of wildfires. After the native peoples were displaced in the late 1800s, widespread grazing reduced shrubs that carried surface fires, said Prichard. On the other hand, some of these shrubs were replaced with cheat grass, which dries out early in the season and becomes a fire hazard.
“It’s such a convoluted story. There are so many factors that led to where we are today,” said Prichard. The climate was cooler and moister through the mid-1980s, meaning there were fewer fires here and they were easier to put out because they were less severe. “But climate change is real and scary,” she said.
In her research after the 2006 Tripod Fire, Prichard compared forests that were only thinned with forests that were thinned followed by prescribed burning. She also looked at forests with no treatment or intervention.
Three years after that fire, Prichard found that more than 57 percent of trees in units that had been thinned and treated with prescribed burns had survived, compared to 19 percent where there was only thinning and 14 percent in the untreated units. She also found that even in small treated areas — under 20 acres — the severity of the fire was reduced.
Dale Swedberg, manager of the Okanogan Lands Operations and Prescribed Burn Program for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), has been advocating for increased use of prescribed fire for more than 10 years. Swedberg uses prescribed fire when possible to manage four wildlife areas in Okanogan County.
Swedberg has photos that show how the Okanogan Complex Fire stopped abruptly when it reached areas that had been treated with prescribed fire on WDFW lands, where one side is green and open and the other a forest of charred trunks.
Historical use of fire
The Forest Service looks at forests from an ecological and environmental standpoint, to assess how fire would have burned through an area in the past versus today. “We’re very interested in resilience,” said Trebon.
Native people’s oral traditions describe their use of fire. When they left their summer hunting grounds, they would light the valley on fire because burning was essential to create more-open forests for hunting and gathering, said Prichard.
“It’s an encouraging story — previous inhabitants were pretty fire-adapted. They lived with it and used it,” said Prichard. But our contemporary lifestyle is different — our properties stay in one place and we don’t want them to burn, she said. Prichard believes we can change the characteristics of those forests to make wildfires less severe.
When Swedberg founded the North Central Washington Prescribed Fire Council 10 years ago, he had a similar conviction. “Society needs to learn and accept that fire is an integral component of the ecosystem and habitat. Society needs to learn to live with fire,” he told a Congressional subcommittee.
Swedberg is frustrated that many people still don’t understand the ecological role of fire. Still, he hailed the support of state Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda), who has become an active proponent of prescribed fire.
Kretz co-sponsored legislation that passed this year with nearly unanimous support that creates a pilot project to test forest-resiliency burning. The project includes some exemptions from state air-quality standards and provides $850,000 to the Department of Natural Resources for more monitoring of effects on air quality, with a report to the Legislature in 2018.
Swedberg hopes the new legislation will change the timing for approvals so that burning can be done earlier in the day when smoke can be better controlled.
Although smoke from prescribed fire may be more predictable than smoke from wildfires, it still has a serious impact on health. Some local residents have to leave the area when burns are scheduled, and people with serious respiratory conditions have had to move.
“When we put smoke in the air, we look for the best ventilation conditions possible so we have the least impact” on air quality, said Trebon. She acknowledged that mechanical issues and weather caused smoke from prescribed burns to linger in the valley on more than one occasion this spring.
Because of her work with the Methow Valley Clean Air Project, Raleigh Bowden gets calls from people with health concerns such as asthma or other respiratory conditions who are affected by smoke from prescribed burning. Bowden started wondering if there might be other strategies for reducing the amount of fuel in the forest.
Christopher James, who works with Bowden on the clean air project, distinguished between prescribed burning to reduce the risk of wildfire with burning slash piles left over from logging. Prescribed burning is usually short-term, whereas slash piles can smolder from incomplete combustion, creating particularly unhealthy air, said James.
“From a public health perspective, I know what’s in the smoke. It can affect even healthy people,” said James, who worked as an air-quality regulator for the state of Connecticut for 25 years and is now based in the Methow Valley, where he works with a nonprofit that helps governments improve air quality.
James speculated about creating more markets for slash and wood chips. He also proposed including the cost of slash disposal in commercial logging contracts so that it isn’t simply burned.
James talked last month with an official at the state Department of Ecology about potential mechanisms that would encourage the Forest Service to include environmentally friendly methods of slash disposal in their forest plans.
In addition to creating healthier forests that are able to weather wildfire, doing thinning and prescribed burning provides areas where firefighters can safely fight a fire. “I know from personal experience as a firefighter that these treatment areas are really useful in creating suppression opportunities,” said Trebon.
Trebon listed half-a-dozen large fires in and around the Methow Valley, from the Farewell Fire in 2003 through the Twisp River Fire last summer, where prescribed burns created safe areas and anchors for firefighters.
“I’m not looking to fireproof the forest, but to build resilience in an appropriate manner, specifically reducing wildfire hazards,” said Trebon.
“It’s a huge educational thing. People need to understand that prescribed burning needs to be done to burn these areas in a controlled fashion. When there is a wildfire — because there will be a wildfire — it makes it less severe and safer for firefighters and the public,” said Swedberg.
“It’s fundamental, basic ecosystem restoration,” he said. “You can tell I’m pretty passionate about this.”