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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Use prescribed fire as a tool or wildfire will rule, expert says

Logging to thin forests will reduce potential for wildfires, but the landscape benefits even more if thinning is followed by prescribed burning, wildlife biologists say. A 2015 Okanogan Complex fire burned through the area in this image at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area. The entire area had been thinned in 2013, while only the area on the right half of the photo was treated with a controlled burn in spring 2014 to reduce low-level fuels. The 2015 fire had little impact on fire-treated area, but it burned hotter and killed more trees -- including most of the deciduous trees -- on the left side where the timber thinning had not been followed with a prescribed burn. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Clarification: Washington Department of Natural Resources and State Parks fire management programs are geared primarily to suppression while the Department of Fish and Wildlife is developing a fire management program that would be roughly 95 percent prescribed burning and 5 percent suppression.

In the aftermath of Washington’s worst wildfire season, state wildlife area managers are making a stronger case to fight fire with fire.

This summer, the 304,800-acre Okanogan Complex Fires burned about 25,000 acres in the 85,000 acres of Department of Fish and Wildlife managed lands in northcentral Washington. That’s on top of the 24,000 acres that burned last year in the Okanogan region wildlife areas.

Surveys are documenting how the wildlife habitat that had been treated with man-set controlled fires suffered much less impact from the out-of-control wildfires.

“An extensive massive wildfire basically results in homogenous treatment that takes away from the diversity of the landscape in a huge scale,” said Dale Swedberg, the agency’s Okanogan Lands Operations and Prescribed Burn Program manager.

The state needs to protect its investment in wildlife lands purchased to support sage grouse and other struggling wildlife species by using prescribed fire to enhance and protect their habitat needs, he said.

“One of the objectives in a prescribed burn might be to reduce fuels while leaving more than 50 percent of the bitterbrush or sagebrush in an area for deer or sage grouse,” he said. “In a wildfire, they’re all gone.”

Swedberg, who’s been a manager in the the Okanogan wildlife areas for 16 years, also oversees the agency’s first and only prescribed burning program and team.

“State Parks and DNR already have a prescribed burning program,” he said. “Fish and Wildlife is trying to put more emphasis on it, particularly after back-to-back years of fires. We’re hoping the legislature will support it with funding.”

Post-wildfire surveys are giving wildlife area managers more evidence to seek funding for igniting more controlled small fires in the spring.

About half of the 14,000-acre Sinlahekin Wildlife Area burned this year, but to different degrees.

“We’ve treated roughly 600 acres of the Sinlahekin with prescribed burns and I’d like to treat the entire area over time,” Swedberg said. “You can see the difference by comparing treated and untreated areas.”

Prescribed burning alone in shrub-steppe grasslands can reduce the intensity of wildfires and reduce their impact on habitat for critters including prairie grouse and deer, he said.

Many timbered areas can be better protected – and wildlife habitat can be enhanced – by using loggers to thin timber and then by following the work with a prescribed burn, Swedberg said.

“The takeaway from our surveys is that in some areas we need to focus more on fuel reduction even in logged areas,” he said. “The slash needs to be reduced, which can be done using prescribed fire.”

Fires produce smoke, heat, charcoal and ash, all of which have negative connotations. However, those byproducts of fire are positive contributions to the ecological integrity of a landscape that’s evolved with periodic natural burns, Swedberg said.

A hot-burning wildfire over untreated land might produce too much of a good thing with lots of negative impacts and eventual benefits that may take decades to realize.

Controlled burns minimize the negative impacts of smoke and heat – also erosion – and put all of the byproducts of fire quickly to work for improving habitat, he said.

“Fires have a lot of benefits that aren’t immediately evident,” he said, noting that many native plants important to wildlife are fire dependent. “Charcoal increases water holding capacity of soil and builds the soil.”

Fire can enhance the germination of many native plants and give them an edge against invasive plants.

“Charcoal reduces the effect of a chemical (that) diffuse knapweed or Barnaby’s thistle produce to enhance their ability to out-compete native plants,” he said.

Ash is a fertilizer for the new growth, he added.

“Heat is required to stimulate germination of some native plants like evergreen ceanothus,” he said. “That translates into stimulating regrowth of forage for deer.”

One study found that ceanothus is a top 50 percent winter forage for deer, he said.

Even smoke can benefit wildlife habitat, he said: “A chemical in wood smoke serves as a cue for growth of bitterbrush and Basin wild rye. The chemical in smoke increases the germination rate and vitality of the seedlings.”

The key is to use fire in spring and late fall when the negative impacts can be minimized, he said.

“Wildfire has a lot of negative impacts, and we’re seeing some of them now,” he said. “We’ve lost miles of fence; a lot of range land burned and this winter’s forage will be impacted. In the long term, the fires may benefit mule deer; in the short term more deer are likely to be along roads and roadkills will increase.

“We’re also seeing increased erosion off burned areas,” he said. “But even erosion isn’t all negative. Erosion creates new gravels for spawning fish. Disturbance is the crucible of evolution.”

The costs of thinning and prescribed burning vary, he said. Timber thinning is governed by timber markets and log hauling distances.

“We have to learn how to use fires and how to get more public acceptance of controlled fire and smoke,” Swedberg said.

“If we don’t prescribe fire as a tool,” he said, “wildfire will rule.”