State-funded pilot project includes several Methow Valley sites
By Ann McCreary
From a vantage point high on Buck Mountain overlooking the Eightmile Creek drainage, green forests carpet the mountains as far as the eye can see.
To most people, it probably looks like a healthy landscape. But to forest specialists like Matt Ellis, fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District, it looks out of whack.
“This stand isn’t functioning like it would historically,” Ellis said, indicating the forests stretching into the distance.
With the U.S. Forest Service’s longstanding policy of fire suppression, natural fire hasn’t moved across this landscape for half a century or more. Yet historically, this type of dry forest experienced fire every 35 – 50 years in a natural process that kept forests healthy, he said.
Without a regular cycle of fire, forests on the Methow Ranger District, like forests across the West, have grown unnaturally dense with small diameter trees, and forest floors are littered with shrubs and dead wood.
Those conditions mean that wildfire, when it does happen, is more likely to grow into a conflagration that kills large tracts of forest, produces huge amounts of smoke, and threatens people and property near national forests.
From the Buck Mountain overlook, Ellis pointed to a swath of trees along a hillside where brown, scorched trees are interspersed among the green. It’s a 900-acre area where the Methow Ranger District conducted prescribed burning last spring.
Ellis would like to see a lot more of that on the landscape, he told about 10 local citizens who accompanied him on a recent field trip to visit prescribed burn sites in the Eightmile Creek drainage and learn more about prescribed burning.
“We need to do this on a scale of 20,000 – 30,000 acres a year,” Ellis said. So far this year, only about 1,000 acres have been burned out of the district’s 1.4 million acres, he told participants on the field trip.
Prescribed fire legislation
The forest field trip was part of an effort to increase public understanding and acceptance of prescribed burning, which has provoked public outcry in past years when smoke from prescribed fire has drifted into residential areas.
Residents of the Methow Valley also received a postcard recently in the mail about prescribed burning, describing the process for approving and conducting prescribed burns, which are intentionally set fires designed to burn at low intensity to reduce fuels and improve forest health.
These efforts to inform the public are a result of state legislation passed earlier this year that is aimed at increasing the use of prescribed fire as a tool to prevent catastrophic wildfires and help forests become more resilient to fire and disease.
House Bill 2928 was sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) and directs the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conduct a pilot project of “forest resiliency burning” — also known as prescribed burning — in coordination with other agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of prescribed burning and the impacts on air quality.
HB 2928 encourages larger, multi-day prescribed burning projects that will be monitored and evaluated, with findings summarized in a report to the Legislature in 2018. The report will include a comparative analysis between predicted smoke conditions and actual smoke conditions during prescribed burns.
In the Methow Valley, three large prescribed burns ware planned as part of the pilot project. The Goat prescribed burn unit includes 1,078 acres above the Edelweiss community; the Upper Rendezvous unit includes 1,036 acres up the Fawn Creek drainage; and a unit up Eightmile Creek would encompass 1,187 acres, said Jim Hink, fuels technician with the Methow Valley Ranger District.
Prescribed fire managers in the district have been hoping for opportunities to conduct those prescribed burns this fall, but they will most likely not happen until next spring, Hink said.
Windows of opportunity
Prescribed fire can only occur during precise windows of opportunity, when all conditions are favorable to ensure that the objectives of the burn can be safely achieved, Ellis explained during the Eightmile field trip.
Each burn is conducted according to a detailed “prescription” that identifies the objectives of the burn and exactly what conditions need to be met in order to conduct it — including weather, temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, fuel moisture, personnel and resources.
The burn only happens when all those prescribed conditions are met, Ellis said. “If we need a 10 mile-per-hour wind and don’t get it, we won’t burn,” he said.
As a result, there are very limited periods — only about two weeks in spring and two weeks in fall (summer is too hot and dry) — when prescribed burning can occur safely and without sending too much smoke into nearby communities, Ellis said.
“We only get a couple of weeks when everything lines up,” he said.
Every burn prescription includes a contingency plan to ensure resources are available to deal with a fire if it escapes its perimeter, Ellis said.
In addition to constraints of nature and resources, the fire managers say the ability to conduct prescribed burns has also been hampered by an approval process that is focused on preventing smoke from impacting communities.
Agencies are required to obtain approval from DNR in Olympia on the same day they intend to ignite a burn, which sometimes means mobilizing people and equipment — including helicopters — only to be forced to call off the operation when approval is withheld due to concerns over air quality, Ellis said.
To maximize opportunities to burn, HB 2928 requires that DNR give approval at least 24 hours in advance for pilot projects like the three planned for the Methow Valley. That advance approval is intended to make it easier for fire managers to prepare and move ahead with planned burning.
In an area treated with prescribed burning last spring in the Eightmile drainage, the bark of large trees is charred black several feet up their trunks. The forest has an open feel dominated by big trees with grasses and a few small conifers in the open spaces between them. The forest floor is relatively clear of debris.
It’s a contrast to adjacent forest that was not part of the prescribed burn, where small trees, logs, branches and underbrush fill the spaces between larger pines.
“This stand is healthier from the standpoint of more light, water and soil for the trees left behind,” Ellis said of the area burned last spring.
The prescribed fire burned off lower branches on many trees — the ladder fuels that would allow future fires to climb into the crowns of trees. It has “weeded out the understory” of shrubs, grasses, dead wood and duff, and “increased the chances of trees surviving a fire,” Ellis said.
Forest managers are able to be very specific in preparing an area for a burn. In the Eightmile unit, for instance, they protected a specific snag that provides wildlife habitat by clearing away flammable material and digging a shallow trench around the base of the trunk.
Some thick patches of trees and understory remain after the prescribed burn, and that’s OK, Ellis said.
“In general we’re not looking for uniform treatment. We want a mosaic pattern” that resembles natural fire, he said.
Forests treated with prescribed fire are better able to survive wildfires and also offer firefighters a safe place to engage fires, he said.
Some people wonder why overgrown forests can’t be treated by thinning them with chainsaws, rather than through fire, Ellis said.
A combination of both thinning and prescribed burning is the best approach, he said, but prescribed fire can accomplish more for less money.
“Prescribed fire is very cost-effective form of management, by hundreds and hundreds of dollars less per acre than mechanical thinning. Twenty people over a couple of days can do what it would take people with chainsaws years to do,” Ellis said.
Looking over the forested landscape from Buck Mountain, Ellis said prescribed burning would need to be done on a far larger scale and with repeated treatments to bring forests back to a natural, resilient state.
But to be used effectively, prescribed burning will need to overcome the hurdle of public animosity.
The Legislature allocated more than $800,000 to carry out the pilot burning projects and evaluations required in HB 2928, and to increase public awareness and acceptance of prescribed burning.
The effort to increase public acceptance is backed by several organizations that sponsored the recent prescribed burning postcard. They include the Methow Conservancy, the Okanogan Conservation District, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Service, the Chelan-Douglas Health District, the Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Washington Prescribed Fire Council.
Communities in fire-prone areas like the Methow face a tradeoff when it comes to smoke, they pointed out in their recent mailing to local residents.
Smoke from prescribed fire comes at known times and locations, is regulated and monitored, and uses best practices and weather conditions to reduce the amount of smoke.
On the other hand, smoke from wildfires is unpredictable in location, quantity and spread, can significantly affect air quality, and can cause large economic impacts on communities.