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Thursday, February 22, 2024
Feb. 22, 2024

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Prescribed fires a hot topic for wildlife

The Columbian

A growing number of land managers have a burning desire to improve forest health and wildlife habitat.

The topic of prescribed fires is hotter than ever following last summer’s major fires near Cle Elum and Wenatchee.

That’s good news for rural communities, hunters and wildlife.

Setting fires to help manage range and forests is an ancient concept. If lightning wasn’t doing the job, Native Americans often set fires for clearing travel routes as well as rejuvenating vegetation for better harvests and more forage for their horses and the wildlife they consumed.

Suppressing fires to protect private property and commercial timber stands became the law of the land after the 1910 blowup of forest fires in the West.

Ironically, that decade of fires set the stage for the boom in elk populations in portions of the Bitterroot Mountains that lasted through the ’60s.

But as further fires were suppressed, the potential for catastrophic fires increased. Wildlife habitat deteriorated. Elk herds in many areas were declining before wolves were reintroduced into the equation.

Logging mimics the good qualities of a burn to some degree, but it cannot replace nature’s dependence on fire.

The Forest Service and other land managers have been trying to make up the difference with controlled burns.

Colville National Forest officials say they burn as many acres as possible in spring and late fall given the constraints of funding, weather, political tolerance for risk and smoke and the narrow window of prime conditions for safely torching underbrush and dog-hair stands.

Since 1987, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has promoted prescribed burns to boost wildlife habitat in 22 states.

In Washington alone, the group has chipped in $450,000 to help fund 99 projects involving prescribed burning. More than 43,000 acres were treated in those projects on federal and state lands including the Colville, Gifford Pinchot, Olympic, Umatilla and Wenatchee national forests and several state wildlife areas.

A $6,800 trailer dedicated to hauling prescribed burning equipment was donated to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife this year by the Mule Deer Foundation.

National wildlife refuges, established for wildlife preservation, are incorporating fire into routine management. After a massive catch-up effort in the past decade, about 100 acres on the 10,000-acre Turnbull Wildlife Refuge are purposely burned each year, although sequestration could curb fire treatments on federal lands this year.

A rally of sorts is under way this week to get more state factions involved in the benefits of prescribed burns.

The Washington Prescribed Fire Council, a newly formed collaborative seeking to expand the safe use of prescribed fire on the landscape, is wrapping up its second annual conference in Ellensburg. Experts spoke on issues such as smoke management, fire training and fire science outreach.

The group, which includes organizations ranging from county commissioners to The Nature Conservancy, also is urging the 2013 Washington Legislature to approve $15 million in the capital budget for forest health measures that include forest thinning and prescribed burns.

The state Department of Natural Resources has broken out of its mold to support the measure.

“It’s a very wise investment,” Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said Monday.

Dale Swedberg came to that conclusion years ago as the manager of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s Sinlahekin Wildlife Area, where controlled burning on several hundred acres is set to begin this month.

Science – and his collection of before and after photos – support his conviction that fire must be an integral part of maintaining wildlife habitat.

“The bottom line is that we need to be using fire, not waiting for fire to happen to us,” he said.

Forest Service fire history analysts have opened his eyes to the high frequency of fires prior to 1910, he said, noting how the region’s native plants and wildlife evolved with fires. For example:

  • Seeds of shiny leaf ceanothus – important forage for deer – can sit in the soil 200 years waiting for fire to trigger germination.

  • Bighorn sheep and mountain goats need open spaces on high ridges maintained by fire.

  • Low-intensity fires maintain a mosaic of plant communities in varying stages of succession to support wildlife diversity.

Most important to the public, prescribed burns reduce the risk of major uncontrollable fires that destroy private property.

But the public also is a major roadblock. People want the benefits but not the smoke.

The EPA has rules and the public has a threshold.

Swedberg and other prescribed burn advocates say a little smoke in early spring and late fall can prevent blowout fires that smoke people out of their homes.

More professionals should be trained in the science of safe, effective forest thinning and prescribed burns to reduce the outrageous amount of money spent each year on fighting major forest fires.

“Wildfires can be good,” Swedberg said, “but everything about them – where they go, how hot they burn, when they start and how long they last – is unknown. It’s much better to be proactive with controlled burns where virtually everything, including the benefit to wildlife, is known.”