There is broad scientific consensus today that fire-phobic policies dating to the early 1900’s guiding land managers to aggressively extinguish wildfires created as many future problems as they protected lives and property at that time. The problem, as we now understand it, is that not all wildfires are equal. In fact, tribal inhabitants of many western forests regularly used cooler, creeping fires before Euro-American settlers began putting them out. Pre-settlement users of fire recognized its value for clearing travel routes, improving habitat for game, and stimulating production of berries and other foods. Combined with those fires sparked by lightning storms, trees such as the ponderosa pine that are found in forests more frequently visited by the disturbance possess thick, fire resistant bark that enables them to survive exposure to severe heat.
But putting fires out for over a century changes things. Different tree and plant species take root. And the litter that rains to the forest floor from trees above on a regular basis accumulates. The result contributes to the conflagrations that have become commonplace most every summer across the West. The US Forest Service now often spends over half its annual budget fighting fires.
This spring, MARS began addressing the issue by setting fire to a portion of the Mt. Adams Community Forest. It was an effort that is one part restoration of a vital natural process and, another part, the reduction of the threat of large, damaging wildfires. A 27 acre unit was designated for a prescribed burn that began with preparations initiated over a year ago that involved thinning and limbing of trees. The tedious process of developing a burn plan and applying for permits was guided by the Center for Natural Lands Management, a non-profit organization that was contracted to administer burn implementation. A cost-share program with Washington DNR will ultimately help to defray some of these costs.
Finally, in early April, weather conditions aligned with a warm spring day after several days of drying weather. Fire personnel – both contract and volunteer – convened on the Pine Flats Tract of the community forest. Strategy was discussed, contingency plans identified and the final call with permission was received. Twenty plus Nomex clad fire bugs assumed their positions and a test unit was ignited. Success! Before long, strips of fire that had been laid by drip torches grew together, consuming pine needles, dead grasses, bitterbrush and small trees. Periodically, a loud hissing and crackling would indicate the torching of a grand or Doug-fir – two species less adapted to fire – in the interior of the unit. The morning warmed; humidities dropped. Fire activity intensified, but in a good way. Smoke began to billow in different shades between black and white, indicating the degree to which fuels were being consumed. And just as hoped, the plume lifted high above the unit before moving northwest toward Mt. Adams, away from roads and residences. And then, it was over – at least the exciting part.
A small, generous crew of volunteers combined with MARS staff to “mop up” the fire over the next several days in order to comply with the permit and prevent unwanted reignitions. And now we are monitoring the response of a forest ecosystem to a disturbance that the forest was programmed to deal with over the course of thousands of years. Green shoots of new grasses and forbs are emerging through the blackened duff. Bud break has occurred on the larger trees that we knew would survive. And the forest clearly looks different, in a good way from our perspective. Furthermore, an errant spark or cigarette butt rolling off the road on a hot summer day would now be a little slower in growing into a wildfire, giving firefighters a chance to respond or a place to work from in combatting a larger fire.
Our hope is that we will continue to learn much from this experience and that this will become a more regular occurrence, expanding into other MARS-owned and managed lands. Check our Facebook page for more photos of the prescribed fire and the process before and after. Stay tuned for updates!