This past August and September, I gained more experience with wildfire than I ever cared to. I arrived at my off-the-grid cabin in the Aeneas Valley of Okanogan County just as the North Star fire broke out. A few days later, the Tunk Block fire threatened from a different direction. I watched with apprehension as enormous columns of smoke billowed into the blue Washington skies, punching so high into the atmosphere that clouds formed above the convection columns. Each night I could see flames in the distance. Balls of fire flashed into view and faded, each representing trees being consumed in a crown fire.
My property, some 800 feet in elevation above the valley floor, offered an excellent vantage point. And as a professional forester, I could interpret what I saw, even though I had limited fire experience. I knew that some of the U.S. Forest Service land south of Aeneas Valley had recently been treated to reduce fuel loads. This is a two-step process. First, dense forests are thinned, removing enough trees and underbrush to disrupt the “ladder fuels” that encourage crown fires. Next, a controlled burn is conducted during cool weather. When the inevitable wildfire arrives, little fuel remains to be burned. That’s the theory anyway; the test had come in the form of the North Star and Tunk Block fires.
As the fires raged and the prospect of control was very much in doubt, I attended public meetings, studied fire maps, spoke with key personnel, and made my own observations. I specifically asked four fire bosses whether the fuel-treatment zones were helping. All of them enthusiastically said yes. In fact, the official fire report from Sept. 5 says in part:
“Benefit of fuel treatments: The forest thinning and fuels treatments in the south and east forested edges of Aeneas Valley modified fire behavior, slowing its spread as well as facilitating burnouts and allowing firefighters to establish effective containment lines that protected homes and land.”
Once the fires were contained and the woods reopened to the public, I made two trips into the burned areas. First, I visited the northwest reaches of the North Star fire, in the vicinity of Lyman Lake Road and Devils Canyon. Many of the managed forest stands displayed little damage at all, appearing much the same as I had seen them a year ago. A few treated areas had been lost, but considering the extreme conditions that prevailed — hot windy days and low fuel moisture — the survival of so much timber was impressive.
My second foray into the woods took me to the northeastern part of the Tunk Block fire, near Peony Creek at the west end of Aeneas Valley. Here, the difference between treated and untreated forests was even clearer. Along Forest Service Road 3010, thinned forests stood green and healthy. Judging from the scarcely-burned ground vegetation, it was hard to imagine that a destructive wildfire had loomed nearby. When I turned the corner onto Road 3015, the destruction wrought by the Tunk Block fire came into view. On the south side of the road, where trees of all sizes and ages had been crowded together, little remained besides charred trunks. Virtually every needle on every tree had been vaporized. Ash coated the ground, and not a speck of green was to be seen. Trees that had taken root while Thomas Jefferson was president had been incinerated within seconds.
To the north of the road, where ladder fuels had been removed, survival was nearly 100 percent. Not only were the trees alive, they had barely even been scorched. The fire had burned so meekly that green seedlings still poked from the ground.
And so it is, that within the boundaries of one of the largest wildfires in the state’s recent history, in a month with some of the most extreme fire weather imaginable, large swaths of green forest remain; and the sprawling wildland-urban interface of Aeneas Valley was saved. This did not happen as a result of a bold stroke of genius or a previously unknown technology. Instead, it was the result of tried-and-true forest management practices that have been known for decades.
Some environmental activists adamantly claim that fuel reduction projects do not work, and are merely a ploy to harvest more timber. I invite any doubters to go to the places that I went, and see what I have seen. Preemptive fire management saves forests and property. It can and should be widely employed in the Inland Northwest.
Bob Schumacher a consulting forester who works in both the southeastern and northwestern United States. He owns property in Okanogan County.
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