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Good Fire, Bad Fire

Table Mountain Fire, September 2012.

Written by Ryan Haugo, Washington-Idaho Forest Ecologist

The 2012 Pacific Northwest wildfire season was one for the record books.

In Idaho, the Mustang Complex alone burned 300,000 acres. In Washington, over 350,000 total acres burned and fire suppression costs alone totaled more than $88 million dollars. Not exactly chump change in this time of fiscal cliffs and sequestration.

Yet, fire always has been and always will be an integral part of our western forests. Fire is both inevitable and is the ultimate contradiction; often beautiful, terrifying, destructive, renewing and life-giving, all at the same time. Yet, our management of western forests over the past century has broken this natural link with fire, leaving our forests vulnerable to uncharacteristically large and destructive fire and insect and disease outbreaks. Climate change will only increase these vulnerabilities.

In my role as a forest ecologist I spend a lot of time talking about the risks of “uncharacteristic fire” (bad!) and the importance of “prescribed fire” (good!) in restoring healthy and resilient forests.

Our official tagline is “The Nature Conservancy works to maintain fire’s role where it benefits people and nature, and keep fire out of places where it is destructive”.  An excellent sentiment, but the line between fire that “benefits people and nature” and fire that is “destructive” can be quite blurry.

Last September an intense late summer lightning storm rolled across the Pacific Northwest, starting fires in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. That month I had a series of meetings across eastern Washington and northern Idaho. No matter where I traveled, I couldn’t escape the smoke. During the day visibility was terrible and at night my eyes stung and my throat hurt, even when holed up in my hotel room. No fun – that much smoke must certainly indicate a “bad fire”, right?

Not necessarily. This winter we were finally able to get out and take a look at some of the newly burned forests that had smoked-in my September travels. Matt Dahlgreen, TNC forester and intrepid explorer, shot a beautiful series of photos from one section of the Wenatchee Complex fires in eastern Washington.

Matt Dahlgreen Photo: A winter look over the Peavine and Klone Peak fires, eastern Cascades, Washington. Mt. Rainier is in the background.

His photos show rejuvenation and restoration, not death and destruction. These fires had burned with relatively low severity during a time of moderate weather conditions, and the net result were thinned forest stands that will be even more resilient to the next fire.  There were other patches with nearly all of the trees killed, but this occurred in areas where the forest is adapted to “high severity fire” and the bear, elk and other wildlife will greatly benefit.

What determines if a wildfire is good or bad? Suppression costs? Property destruction? Air quality? Impacts on wildlife habitat? Can a fire be good and bad at the same time?

Click onward to read the rest of Ryan's article on the Nature Conservancy's "Cool Green Science" blog.

This infographic shows how forests in Eastern WA have changed under the fire management regimes we've employed in the past 150 years. Forests in the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF span the gamut from "within historic range" to "severely departed" from their pre-European conditions. Click to see a larger version of this infographic.

Revisit the slideshow TNC's Matt Dahlgreen posted on WenatcheeOutdoors from his New Years' ski trip through areas burned by the 2012 Peavine and Klone Peak Fires.