By Susan Prichard
After all the summer wildfires we’ve had in and around the Methow Valley, most of us who call this valley home are resident fire experts. We know what early spring snowmelt and periods of summer drought mean for fire danger, and we know that the shrub steppe and forests around us burn fast on hot and windy summer days.
Many of us have done FireWise work around our homes, clearing tree needles and burnable vegetation away from our homes and screening vents and porches to make it less likely for our homes and other buildings to burn in the next wildfire. In conversations around the valley, I’ve heard many friends and neighbors talk about the dense forests around our valley and how they need to be thinned to reduce the chance of severe wildfires. After so many fires, I think it’s safe to say that people who live in the Methow Valley know that it’s not a matter of if but when for the next wildfire event.
I am a research fire ecologist with the University of Washington School of Forest and Environmental Sciences. I study wildfires and how to make forests more resilient to future fires. From my research and that of other people throughout the western United States, the answer to reducing fire hazard in forests is straightforward. Forest fires have been absent for much of the past century, and many forested landscapes in the Methow Valley and across the inland West have become dense and layered with accumulated fuels; they are prime for burning.
To reduce fire hazard in pine and dry mixed conifer forests, the smaller, dense understory trees need to be thinned out, leaving the larger and more fire resistant Douglas-fir ponderosa pine trees. After thinning, prescribed burning is required — either by underburning or piling and burning dispersed thinning slash. We also need to take a birds-eye view of restoration projects and understand how to coordinate projects across larger landscapes to create fire breaks and defensible space so that forests are not only more resilient to fire at a local scale but can also help prevent the spread and severity of future wildfires.
As an early reviewer of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Restoration Strategy, I was extremely impressed by the shift in U.S. Forest Service priorities from a model of timber extraction to one of restoration, guided by science. The strategy outlines the long-term investment that the U.S. Forest Service is making to restore forests in our area to be more resilient to fire, insects and drought, and to provide high-quality habitat to fire-adapted plants and animals.
Two projects are being proposed for our valley that call for “dry forest restoration.” Personally, I’ve been referring to them as “A Tale of Two Projects.” As proposed, only one of the projects is authentic restoration, and the other is simply a commercial timber harvest.
The Forest Service Mission Project in the Libby and Buttermilk area is a large, coordinated plan to restore 50,000 acres that somehow managed to escape fire in the 2014 and 2015 wildfire seasons. The Project, which was designed under the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF Restoration Strategy and supported by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, will involve strategic timber harvests that thin forests from below, removing smaller understory trees and leaving the medium and larger-sized, more fire- and climate-resilient trees. Nearly three-fourths of the proposed sale areas will be winter harvested over snow and frozen ground to reduce soil compaction and disturbance, and a series of prescribed burns are planned to reduce accumulated thinning slash and surface fuels.
After witnessing similar projects above Edelweiss and in Cub Creek and how quickly the forests transformed from messy post-harvest areas to open-grown forests with a diversity of fire-adapted understory plants, I strongly support the Mission Project. The USFS is still collecting comments at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=4920.
The Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is proposing a much smaller, 735-acre timber sale on Virginia Ridge outside of Winthrop. Although also referred to as restoration, this sale is just a standard commercial timber harvest. The harvest, proposed for summer 2018, will remove many of the mid-sized trees and leave 26-30 of the largest diameter trees per acre. Currently, there is no plan to remove the small-diameter understory trees and no plan to follow the harvest with prescribed burning other than landing piles. Because small trees will be left, the net effect will be what we refer to as a “thin from above” with little benefit for fire hazard reduction.
Given that the Washington DNR just released a 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan with a plan to restore over 1 million acres of state forests in eastern Washington, it is particularly disappointing that this sale is not being used as a demonstration of their revised approach. Situated across from Sun Mountain Lodge and along the Methow River, the site is an excellent candidate for actual dry forest restoration. Comments can be made on this sale by visiting www.dnr.wa.gov/state-environmental-policy-act-sepa.
As resident fire experts, it is important that we speak up about plans for dry forest restoration and to reduce fire hazard in our neighboring forests. The science is clear — forest thinning should be followed by prescribed burning. Projects that omit this burning generally leave fuel conditions in a worsened, rather than improved, condition. It is high time that the Washington DNR brings prescribed burning back into their east-side toolkit. To protect our homes and communities, we need these projects, but we need them to leave the forests in better shape and more resilient to future fires.
Susan Prichard is a fire ecologist who lives in Winthrop.