Fighting fires with fire: Prescribed fires restore healthy balance in forests

A firefighter with a radio monitors walks through brush in an area being treated by prescribed fire

As another hot, dry summer of fighting wildland fires winds down, National Forests and other Pacific Northwest land managers have begun to turn their attention to prescribed fires, or fires intentionally set to perform ecological work on the landscape.

Fire is an essential, natural process, having shaped the landscape for thousands of years, releasing, and recycling nutrients from vegetation, duff, and soil layers, improving the overall health of plants and animals.

In the Pacific Northwest, forests evolved to experience periodic fires that can thin overgrowth on the forest floor and make space for larger, healthier trees. On forests and grasslands, some invasive species may prove vulnerable to fires, while some native species actually require fire to release or germinate seeds.

“Prescribed fire is the right fire, in the right place, for the right reasons,” Rob Allen, fire staff officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest said. “It’s a proactive step- a choice to put fire to work for our communities and forests rather than just fight against it year after year.”

A stand of trees previously treated with prescribed fire.

After a prescribed fire on the Ochoco National Forest, Oregon, mature trees enjoy healthier spacing, while charred wood from dead trees provides wildlife habitat and fast-growing grasses and low-growing vegetation removed by quickly return to the area. USDA Forest Service photo.

Land managers have increasingly embraced prescribed fire as a management tool in recent years, as research began to point to an increasing number of larger, hotter “mega-fires” in the region that are believed to be fueled, in part, by a century of fire management decisions encouraging suppression of all fires — including the smaller, lower intensity fires, such as those set naturally by lightning during the cooler, wetter months.

Paul Hessburg, a scientist for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Research Station estimates prescribed fires (and management of suitable natural fires) need to occur at six times recent rates to restore the “historical fire regime” to forests in Washington and Oregon.

In Central Washington, firefighters from seven agencies across the state will manage prescribed fires across central Washington, including the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, as part of a formal training exchange (TREX). Sponsored by the Fire Learning Network, TREX provides a unique opportunity for fire personnel from across the region to learn about prescribed fire and forest health across agency boundaries. Land managers from multiple agencies plan to burn up to 950 acres during the two-week TREX, and up to 5300 acres across the eastern Cascades this summer.

A low-intensity prescribed fire burns grass and brush while leaving larger trees intact.

A prescribed fire burns “low and slow” across an area on the Colville National Forest, Washington. Large, healthy trees with thicker bark may lose lower branches, but typically survive low-intensity fire, while smaller trees, brush, and diseased trees are typically burned away. Some native Pacific Northwest tress, grasses and wildflowers trees depend on fire to propagate, or have fire-resistant seeds that thrive in spaces where fires have cleared competing non-native species and seeds. USDA Forest Service photo.

On the Malheur National Forest in northeast Oregon, land managers have announced plans to burn parcels ranging from 150 to 4,000 acres, as weather permits, this fall.

On the Siuslaw National Forest, located on the central Oregon Coast, firefighters will burn “slash,” piles of debris and limbs that have accumulated throughout the year from timber sales and large scale restoration projects, to reduce the risk of these debris becoming fuel for wildland fires. All burning will be administered and overseen by trained firefighting personnel.

“This is the ideal time,” Dan Eddy, Siuslaw National Forest deputy fire staff officer, said. “The ground is damp from recent rains making it an effective way to remove non-merchantable wood debris before it can become a hazardous fuel in the dry summer months.”

Firefighters will also conduct prescribed burns in the Drift Creek area, (6 miles east of Waldport), and off Forest Service Road 52 in the Tidewater area (12 miles east of Waldport), on the Siuslaw National Forest.

Safety and smoke are the two concerns most people raise when they hear about plans for prescribed fires in their community.

That’s understandable, Allen said. “Clean air matters to all of us.”

A firefighter uses a drip torch to set fire to brush

A firefighter uses a drip torch to set fire to brush during a prescribed burn on the Klamath Ranger District on the Fremont-Winema National Forest, Oregon April 26, 2013. USDA Forest Service photo

Each prescribed fire represents many weeks of planning and preparation. Prescribed fires are managed using techniques that reduce fire intensity and smoke, such as careful site selection and attention to air and ground moisture,  atmospheric pressure, and wind.

Because firefighters choose the place, time, and conditions under which prescribed fires occur, they typically have much less impact on the surrounding community than wildland fires that aren’t planned.

Over time, land managers believe having more prescribed fires will reduce the amount of smoke experienced by communities, by preventing or limiting the size and intensity of wildland fires that occur on previously burned acreage.

More information:

Learn more about why fire on is needed on Pacific Northwest landscapes – and how prescribed fires can help in –  at https://www.north40productions.com/eom-home/.

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