+6 6 votes

Taming Fire with Fire


Photos: Low-intensity fire (left) clearing the forest floor. High-intensity fire (right) clearing the forest altogether.


Story by Andy Dappen. Photos by John Marshall and others

Before we forget that fear of wildfires approaching our city and the inconvenience of breathing foul air for weeks on end, we would do well to ask what just happened on our wild lands and whether we need to fear future incidences of fire raging toward our communities.

These questions harken back to a talk given earlier this summer by Dr. Paul Hessburg, a Research Landscape Ecologist with the Forestry Sciences Lab in Wenatchee. Hessburg’s theme revolved around the 1994 fires in Chelan County that burned over 186,000 acres in Rat Creek, Tyee Creek, Hatchery Creek, and Round Mountain. Hessburg asked whether these fires were extraordinary incidents or a harbinger of things to come.

The conclusion of this talk that drew from decades of research, modeling, and actual fires was that citizens of the West better hang onto their fire hoses. Unless state and county governments, land management agencies, environmental organizations, and members of the public pull together in reducing an overload of fuels in our forests, big fires, like the Wenatchee Complex fires burning around us now, will continue to ignite. In the future we should expect more fires that can flambé structures and produce custard-thick air.

Hessburg showed representative pictures of what many Northwestern watersheds looked like 80 years ago (when they were much more fire resistant) and what some of those same watersheds look like now. Even to an untrained audience, it was obvious many of these forests were going to vaporize if drought and fire visited those areas simultaneously. Almost prophetically, Hessburg showed a picture of slopes above Mission Creek, only a ridgeline removed from Wenatchee, and explained why, like the majority of the forested landscape around us, it was ripe for a bad burn.


Top photo, taken by John Marshall in 2010, illustrates the problem of too many trees. The same slopes were much more fire resistant when the 1934 picture was taken.

The 1934 picture showed hills with patchy forests that were mottled with clearings and populated with broadly spaced, big trees. The 2010 picture, by contrast, showed an epidemic of  trees. The clearings had filled in and the hills were crammed with small and medium-sized trees. The fuel of so many trees in so many layers, Hessburg explained, almost guaranteed that once a fire got going (and fire would eventually visit these slopes) the flames would do far more than clean house; they would ignite the hillside into a forest-destroying wall of fire. Some of the very forests Hessburg used to illustrate the problem are now, as he predicted, gone.

All around the West a century of heavy human intervention has changed the landscape. In watershed after watershed the low-density, large, old trees that withstood smaller wildfires for centuries have been removed first by logging and, more recently, through stand-destroying high-severity fires. Logged and burned areas have frequently been replanted in very high densities. On top of this, a policy of suppressing most fires has dominated fire management for nearly a century. This policy has prevented low-severity fires from clearing the forest floor of small trees, fallen logs, brush, and other combustibles -- a process that took place naturally before logging and fire exclusion.

Suppression proved to be very effective for several decades but, gradually, an oversupply of combustible materials has accumulated on an estimated 150 million acres of federal forests -- an area 3.5 times the size of our state. The majority of our dry forests, which includes Central Washington, are tinderboxes.



Photo: A forest with 1) too much fuel, 2) too many small trees and ladder fuels that will jump fire from the ground to the canopy, 3) trees too densely spaced...

To rectify the problem of too much fuel on the ground there’s, ironically, a strong need to fight fire with fire by reintroducing low-intensity burns back onto the landscape. The Entiat District within the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest (OWNF) has been on the vanguard of this practice. Matt Dahlgreen, a retired forest ecologist with the Entiat District, says that prescribed fire is “one of the most cost-effective tools for reducing fire hazard while, at the same time, returning our forests to a more diverse and sustainable condition.” 

Dahlgreen says more and more people realize that fire is a part of our landscape and that prescribed fire is an effective way to reduce high-intensity fires. For many people, that realization hit home after the 1994 Tyee Fire. Here, a number of the stands in the Entiat, like the Goman Peak Fuel Break, that were treated with fire to reduce the fuel load survived the fire with negligible damage. Many of the adjacent stands of untreated forests were transformed to charcoal.



John Marshall Photo: This stand in Byrd Canyon (Entiat Ranger District) survived the recent fires nicely. Fire cleaned out ground fuels and small trees. The medium-sized and large trees are in good shape.

A number of the best fire practitioners in the field have refined their craft in the Entiat and have not only run fire through old stands of trees that needed ‘maintenance’ burns to reduce the fuel load, but have also have also thinned forests that are overly congested with small trees by combining some mechanical thinning (chainsaw work) with controlled burning. These efforts have been highly successful and the Entiat District has demonstrated that fire, when used properly, is a very economical and effective tool for returning forests to a fire-ready state.

Unfortunately, some segments of the public are not supportive of using prescribed fire to produce fire-ready forests. The citizens of neighboring communities are often averse (and vocal) about the smoke created from controlled burns. They pressure local government and agencies to reduce the burning. Meanwhile, property owners along the forest interface, fearing that controlled burns might run amuck, frequently contest the use of fire as a management tool.

And yet as massive fires like those of 2012 in Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Idaho, and here in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest erupt across the landscape with greater frequency, many experts like Hessburg and Dahlgreen believe we need to lower our aversions. There is so much terrain with an oversupply of fuel and so little ground actually receiving treatment each year that, unless we revamp our practices, we won’t bring the forests back to a safer state.


John Marshall: Another stand in Byrd Canyon that was overloaded with high-density, small trees. This slope got nuked.

Hessburg coined the choice between conducting business as usual versus using low-intensity fires to reduce fuel loads this way: “The question is not ‘whether there will be fire and smoke’ but, ‘how do you want your fire in smoke?. Do you want it in a few big, intense, uncontrolled wildfires, or in many small, low-intensity burns?”

Locally we’ve just witnessed a big, uncontrolled burn and it scared many of us living nearby. Despite the fact that over 56,000 acres of ground have been charred, we should keep in mind that this incident has been charitable to humans. Had strong winds accompanied the flames as they advanced toward Wenatchee or Cashmere, many homes might have been lost.

Hopefully our relatively unscathed escape from the jaws of the lion will not lead us to believe that we are off the hook. Hessburg concluded his talk several months ago by stating that those of us living in hot, dry climates around the West can no longer view big, high-intensity fires as isolated incidents. Until we reduce the oversupply of fuels we’ve created on a landscape level, we can look forward to fighting these monsters again.

 ++++

Note: As an addendum to this article we are developing another article focusing on what we can do as individuals, communities, and policy makers to address the issue. Weigh-in below with your thoughts in the ‘Comment’ box.


Other Resources


Photos: Some steps for bringing our forests back into a state of improved fire readiness.