Strategies create ‘safe zones,’ fire lines
Thousands of trees have been cut as part of the strategy for combating the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek 2 fires over the past several weeks.
Firefighters thinned trees to create a safe zone where they could reinforce a control line by burning out vegetation ahead of an approaching fire, Methow Valley District Ranger Chris Furr said in an interview last week.
Some of the trees were already dead or weakened, and some were small-diameter trees that act as ladder fuel, spreading fire to trees higher in the canopy. When absolutely necessary, firefighting crews may also cut larger trees to help create a fire break. Firefighters also took out shrubs and other low vegetation to keep fire on the ground, Furr said.
The fire crews determine what work is necessary for the control line to be effective. Sometimes that’s just masticating brush and removing small trees by hand, and sometimes it involves tree removal by machines. It all depends on the amount of resources and time available, as well as the slope, fuels and operational objectives, Furr said.
Furr explained the strategies last week on a tour of Thompson Ridge Road near Sun Mountain Lodge and Little Bridge Creek Road in the upper Twisp River drainage. “Timber is sometimes a by-product of fire suppression,” he said. When the crews need to cut larger trees, they can use the opportunity to sell the logs and put them to good use, he said.
Trees are cut at different stages of the firefighting and restoration process. Some were cut to reduce immediate hazards to firefighters. But others are removed after a fire has passed through to eliminate risks to crews doing repair work or to take out hazard trees that could fall on roads or trails, Furr said.
“During fire suppression efforts, where trees are removed is driven primarily by operational needs. Firefighter and public safety, and fire containment, are primary objectives under these circumstances,” said Victoria Wilkins, a public information officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
The trees, which have been trucked out of fire zones for the past several weeks, are being sorted in massive piles near the North Cascades Smokejumper Base and the Goat Creek Sno-Park. Most of the trees were cut on National Forest land, but some came from private property.
Many factors go into decisions about how to combat a fire, including the availability of roads or natural features that could act as a fire break. The availability of resources, both crews and equipment, and how much time the firefighters think they have before the fire reaches the line are major factors the team considers when deciding what to use as a fire line, Furr said.
Firefighters also take into account how much of the fire season remains – both the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires started in July, leaving months of hot, dry weather with a high risk of fire spread. They also look at the availability of firefighting crews, who are already spread thin this year fighting fires across the west, Furr said.
Thompson Ridge Road was the primary fire line to protect Winthrop from the Cedar Creek Fire. The primary control line in the upper Twisp River drainage was Abernathy Ridge, a large, natural feature high above the drainage, Furr said. Twisp River Road was their contingency line.
To prepare for a potential burnout to protect homes in the Twisp River basin in case the fire crested the ridge and made its way down to the road, fire crews thinned trees along an approximately 10-mile stretch on the upper Twisp River Road, from Buttermilk to the area burned in 2018 by the Crescent Mountain Fire, Furr said.
No tally yet
Because the Forest Service is still focused on fire suppression and repair, it doesn’t have a tally of how many trees were cut. They also don’t know if they have merchantable value or if and how they would be sold, Wilkins said. But some of the trees are likely to be auctioned in a timber sale, some to mills and others for firewood, depending on the size, Furr said.
At the yards, the trees are sprayed with water to preserve their commercial value, according to a Forest Service employee overseeing the watering near the smokejumper base. The employee said he’d heard that there were an estimated 1 million to 2 million board feet of timber, primarily Douglas fire and Ponderosa pine, but didn’t have confirmation on the quantity.
The Forest Service will follow the same auction procedure used after previous fires, such as Crescent Mountain. A sale after the Crescent Mountain Fire included 47,000 board feet, mostly timber and part green biomass, according to Forest Service records.
The ranger district and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest work closely with the fire team to provide input on objectives, including how to balance resource impacts with operational needs for containing the fire, Wilkins said.
The ranger district assigns a resource adviser to the fire teams to provide guidance. The guidance, which outlines priorities for protection of forests, bodies of water, and cultural resources, is detailed in the daily incident plan for the fire teams.
Guidance from July for the Cedar Creek, Cub Creek 2 and Delancy fires instructed crews to limit cutting of live trees greater than 25 inches in diameter and to consult with the resource adviser if removal was necessary.
Crews try to protect riparian and other sensitive areas. Trees within 100 feet of fish-bearing streams shouldn’t be cut. They’re instructed to avoid cutting whitebark pines. “Still, it’s very much an emergency,” Furr said.
The Forest Service strives to minimize the use of heavy equipment, especially around streams and wetlands. Any snags felled within these riparian areas should be left on site. There are also requirements to leave woody debris in areas of old-growth forest.
Crews are encouraged to use roads and old dozer lines rather than build new ones. They need advance approval before creating dozer lines in stream channels and riparian areas.
The proposed 77,000-acre Twisp Restoration Project has been put on hold, both because staff have had to focus on the fires and because much of the area was affected by the Cedar Creek Fire and will have to be re-evaluated, Furr said.
“It just changes priorities – this year, the fire’s our priority. Most staff were switched to support fire,” Furr said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the number of trees cut during the firefighting. A U.S. Forest Service employee who was the heavy-equipment boss on this summer’s fires said the operation involved 300 to 400 truckloads, with 20 to 30 logs per truck. Most trees were cut into at least two pieces. Those figures mean that thousands of trees were cut, not tens of thousands.