Public/private partnership aimed at reducing fire risks by thinning overgrown areas
By Ann McCreary
Overgrown forests on federal land adjacent to private property in Mazama will be thinned to reduce wildfire risk in a $1 million project that is expected to begin this summer.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has awarded a contract to reduce hazardous fuels in forests near Driveway Butte, Sandy Butte, Lucky Jim Bluff and Lost River Road. The project is a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation, a nonprofit forest conservation organization.
The “Lost Driveway Hazard Fuels Thinning Project” will thin trees on almost 1,500 acres that abut private properties in the first phase of a larger project.
The project is welcome news to Vicki Simmons, a Lost River Road resident who has been working for five years to reduce the risk of wildfire in her heavily forested neighborhood.
In collaboration with private property owners along Lost River Road, Simmons helped secure $227,242 in funding through the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to thin tree stands on private land.
Those funds helped 83 landowners in the Lost River area thin trees and remove debris on their property over the past two years.
But many of those properties border overgrown national forests that pose a risk to adjacent private homes and properties. The Lost Driveway project aims to reduce wildfire risks in these areas of urban/wildland interface.
“You’re only as good as your neighbors,” Simmons said. “Many of our properties are bounded by Forest Service land. We cleaned up our private property, but everyone felt the Forest Service property was just a mess.”
Thinning trees and removing surface fuels on the forest floors has reduced the risk of crown fires in the forests of Lost River, and helped garner support for the $1 million project on adjacent public land, said Meg Trebon, assistant fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District.
“Support from the community and the work this community has done on its own land … was a big influence in getting the specific allocation for this project,” Trebon said. “They’ve done a great job of clearing the understory. It’s made a visible difference.”
The National Forest Foundation (NFF) is partnering with the Forest Service in several landscape restoration projects in and around the valley as part of a campaign called “The Majestic Methow.”
Launched in 2012, the campaign identified several forest restoration projects that the Forest Service would be unable to accomplish without support from NFF. This Mazama project is the most expensive of the projects to be undertaken, said Natalie Kuehler of NFF.
Simmons said she became aware of wildfire danger in 2003, when the Needles Fire burned 24,000 acres of Forest Service lands and came within one-quarter acre of Simmons’ home.
In 2010, DNR and Forest Service entomologists sprayed federal and private forests in the area to prevent a tussock moth epidemic in overgrown forests around Mazama. The moths can eat all the needles off Douglas fir trees, killing large stands of trees.
“During that project I got much more education through the entomologists. They said, ‘Just realize [spraying] is just a band-aid. Your neighborhood is in grave danger because [your forests] are so sick,’” Simmons said.
“That’s when I started finding out what DNR can provide to private landowners” to reduce wildfire risk, Simmons said. She also began talking to the Forest Service about treating forests around Mazama.
Five years later, Simmons is gratified that the fuels reduction project will soon get underway.
“I cannot express how excited I am. Wildfire is our biggest risk. In nature fires would have come through” and periodically thinned forests, Simmons said.
“Man has interfered with nature, whether it’s been logging or fire suppression,” Simmons said.
The Lost Driveway fuels reduction project proposes to treat a total of 2,400 acres, with the first phase focused on 1,480 acres that are adjacent to private lands, Trebon said. The Forest Service is seeking funding to complete the entire project.
The contract for work beginning this summer has been awarded to an Idaho company that will thin understory trees up to eight inches in diameter to reduce the likelihood of crown fires.
The thinned trees will be bucked into 4-foot lengths. Wood that is 5 inches in diameter and larger will be left on the ground and will be available for firewood collection with a valid Forest Service permit in areas that are accessible, Trebon said.
Smaller debris created through the project will be hand-piled and eventually burned, Trebon said.
Crews will adhere to restrictions regarding chainsaw use in dry conditions, and will be unable to enter certain units in the project areas until August to avoid disturbing sensitive and nesting birds, including northern spotted owls, Trebon said. The work is expected to run through the end of October 2016.
Additional funds are available for fuels treatment in the upper Methow Valley through DNR, said Steve Harris, landowner assistance manager. More information is available at (509) 684-7474.