Nature is making an impressive comeback from the ravages of fire
By Ann McCreary
One year ago, the Carlton Complex Fire laid siege to the Methow Valley and surrounding areas, leaving a smoldering, ashen landscape in its wake.
In the immediate aftermath of the wildfires, many people found it hard to imagine that the natural world could ever recover from such a devastating assault. But nature began demonstrating its amazing resiliency almost as soon as smoke cleared.
The first shoots of native grasses and shrubs emerged from the ground within two weeks, and charred hillsides became verdant with bright green grass and flowers after the fall rains.
Springtime produced a bounty of new vegetation in many burned areas, as the soils benefited from a flush of nutrients released into the soil from burned plants.
“On the shrub steppe hillsides, the native bunchgrasses, arrowleaf balsamroots, lomatium and other wildflowers came back extraordinarily well early this spring,” said Heide Andersen, stewardship director for the Methow Conservancy.
“In many areas you could see a greater density of wildflowers in a burned area compared to an adjacent site that was unburned,” she said.
“I was really pleased with how well things recovered in the fall and this spring,” said Peter Morrison, director of Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI), a Winthrop-based conservation and research organization. “It surpassed my expectation, and I think it did for a lot of people.”
That recovery could suffer if the pattern of unusually hot and dry weather that has so far marked summer in the Northwest persists. In any case, Morrison said, it will take a year or more to really assess how the ecosystem will respond to the dramatic alterations created by the Carlton Complex Fire.
“If we’d had a cool, wet summer, that would have promoted ecosystem recovery. The heat itself is hard on things. A lot of it will depend on the rest of the summer, and on fall and winter moisture. Next spring and summer is when we get to see the long-term impacts” on ecosystem recovery, said Morrison, who has studied the impacts of wildfire for many years.
The Carlton Complex Fire was a complex event, a huge firestorm that swept down the Methow Valley to Pateros in mid-July, burning over the Loup Loup Summit and into the Chiliwist area.
The Carlton Complex also included the Rising Eagle Fire, which began Aug. 1, the Little Bridge Creek Fire, which ignited Aug. 2, and the Upper Falls Fire, which began Aug. 3.
“The effects of the fires were very complex and varied in different areas,” Morrison said. Humans often try to define the outcomes of disaster as “bad or good,” but it’s not that simple, he said.
Not necessarily detrimental
In an ecosystem like the Methow Valley and surroundings, where fire has always played an important role, fires aren’t necessarily detrimental. In fact, biologists and conservationists predict the changes on the landscape will, in many ways, make the ecosystem healthier in the long term.
The majority of the land burned in the Carlton Complex — more than 60 percent according to a PBI survey — was shrub steppe vegetation, comprised of grasses and shrubs like bitterbrush and sagebrush.
Over decades, largely due to the human activities of livestock grazing and fire suppression, those shrub steppe lands have become increasingly dominated by shrubs. The large and prolific bitterbrush and sagebrush were one reason the Carlton Complex burned so intensely.
“This shrub steppe hadn’t burned in a long time. Having that kind of shrub density contributed to the ferocious nature of this fire,” Morrison said.
The Carlton Complex “reset the shrub steppe to more like it was 100 years ago. The shrubs will take a lot longer to recover, but the native bunchgrasses and perennial herbs are coming back like gangbusters,” Morrison said.
That change is likely to mean good news for a species of bird that was once abundant here, but has declined to the point that it is almost never seen — the sharp-tailed grouse. The bird is listed as a threatened species in Washington state.
Old-time valley residents told stories about “waiting until there were so many grouse lined up they could shoot several with a single bullet,” Morrison said. “Hunting took its toll, but I think it was a change in habitat conditions” that led to their decline here, he said.
“Sharp-tailed grouse like grasslands,” and the Carlton Complex Fire created a lot more of that habitat when it burned the shrubs, said Scott Fitkin, wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). “The fire actually improved sharp-tailed habitat” and may help the bird recolonize here, he said.
Another threatened species in the Methow Valley — the western gray squirrel — may also benefit in the long term from the fire, despite the fact that a significant portion of its habitat was burned. The squirrels have already shown impressive resilience.
The core population of western gray squirrels in the Methow Valley was found in the lower valley — Black Canyon, Squaw, McFarland and French Creek areas, based on studies conducted by PBI and WDFW.
“Almost all of its habitat was hit by the fire at varying levels of severity,” said Morrison. “The fire couldn’t have been planned to have a bigger impact. We went out [to the squirrels’ habitat] right after the fire and we immediately started seeing that they survived,” he said.
“Some areas were burned black and those won’t be habitat for squirrels for decades or maybe 100 years,” Morrison said. “There were other patches of mixed [tree] mortality or tree survival, and squirrels seemed to be persisting in those areas.”
The squirrels like to live in large pines with relatively open ground beneath. In many areas the lack of regular wildfires has allowed smaller trees and shrubs to fill in around the big pines. Last summer’s wildfires cleared out much of that understory.
“The squirrels obviously took a pretty severe hit, but in areas where they are surviving the habitat may be better. The population may drop for a while and then rebound,” Morrison said.
WDFW and PBI are conducting a three-year, statewide survey of western gray squirrels. “Hopefully after this three-year effort we will have a better understanding of the overall distribution and relative abundance of the squirrels,” Fitkin said.
Deer herd did well
The valley’s large mule deer population may face challenges resulting from the loss of so much of the vegetation that supports them, but the herd survived the first winter after the fire quite well, Fitkin said.
“After the fire we were concerned with losing winter range forage … but we had a really wet fall with more green-up than I’ve seen since I’ve been here. That was a real boost for the animals,” Fitkin said.
Because the winter was so mild, with low snow accumulation, the deer “were able to forage on that well into winter,” he said. As a result, the herd had a better-than-average survival rate for fawns, based on WDFW surveys. Fitkin said about 53 percent of last year’s fawns survived the winter, compared to an average of 48 percent.
“That kind of fawn survivorship is probably an indication of a healthy herd,” he said.
Anticipating potential starvation among the herd if the winter were normal or severe, last fall WDFW authorized additional permits to hunt does to reduce the population and the pressure on the winter range. Fitkin said about 1,900 permits were made available, but the number of deer actually taken is still being calculated.
In combination with the good fall grazing and mild winter, the reduced herd numbers may have contributed to the apparent health of the herd, Fitkin said. Even with the reduced numbers, however, browsing by deer took a toll on new growth in areas where aspen, cottonwood, wild rose, serviceberry, snowberry and elderberry were trying to gain a foothold after the fire, he said.
WDFW will likely issue more permits than usual for does again this fall, Fitkin said. “The winter range concerns will continue for a couple of years.”
A hot dry summer could exacerbate the loss of shrub forage for the herd, Fitkin said. “Some of the nice upper elevation meadows will dry out earlier than usual,” he said.
Drought conditions have also hampered efforts by local conservation groups and property owners to reseed areas to reduce flooding potential and prevent the spread of noxious weeds.
The Methow Conservancy led a campaign last fall to spread seed on disturbed areas including fire lines, burned riparian areas, and areas that already had weed infestations.
“Unfortunately, with our lack of precipitation this spring and summer, the seeding hasn’t been as successful as we would have hoped,” said Andersen. “Our staff has been recommending to any landowners with burned property to wait until the fall to continue any reseeding efforts.”
More threats this summer
The threat of unstable slopes and more flooding continues this summer, after one of the few significant rains of the season produced flash flooding in Texas Creek and other parts of the valley in May. Floods last August created widespread damage to homes, properties and roads in several drainages.
In addition to destroying vegetation that holds soil on hillsides, the wildfire burned so hot in some areas that scorched soils were chemically changed and have become water repellant, further adding to the erosion potential.
“There’s no way to predict if it [the burned area] will stabilize in three years, five years — I’ve heard in some cases as long as eight years,” said Craig Nelson, director of the Okanogan Conservation District.
In June the Conservation District completed construction of 13 flood diversion structures — mostly large dikes — on properties that were identified as being at risk from future flooding. The work was conducted through a federal Emergency Watershed Protection Program at no cost to property owners who chose to participate.
Ironically, one property on Texas Creek was inundated by mud and debris just days before work on the flood diversion was scheduled to begin.
New rainfall gauges have also been installed within the perimeter of the Carlton Complex Fire by the National Weather Service in an effort to provide more site-specific information and early warning about potential flash flooding.
Even with this additional technology, landowners whose properties may be at risk of flooding will need to “remain vigilant” for at least three more years, Nelson said.
“Know that even if it’s not raining on your head, but raining elsewhere in the watershed, you could get a flash flood,” he said.