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Friday, April 3, 2015

"It's Complex" Fire Ecology & Recovery 2015 Conservation Course - Class #6 Notes

Summary of March 2, 2015 class by volunteer Nick Thorp and course coordinator Julie Grialou

The final week of the 2015 fire ecology conservation course coincided with what feels like an early spring in the valley. With daytime temperatures well above freezing for several weeks, snow melting rapidly, and shoots of grass popping up, a sense of the the change of seasons and the coming summer is growing. With summer comes fire season and everybody’s question of what this year will hold following the Carlton Complex fire of 2014. The answer to that question follows the theme of the course: it’s complex.

Richy Harrod, Fire Management Specialist with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, joined the class to present his thoughts on what the future may hold for the Methow and ways that we as a community can live with fire. Following an extreme fire event like the Carlton Complex, there is generally a low risk for fire in burned areas. Plants and grasses will begin to repopulate these areas in the next several years without much fuel to allow for flammable conditions. It is not until about 15 years after a fire that dense shrubs will establish and a real fire danger returns. While this may ring true for some burned forests in the Methow from the Carlton Complex fires, other areas are at risk or will potentially be at risk in the future.

Last year’s fires, combined with the Tripod and other large fire events in recent history, have burned from Canada to the Columbia River. But large tracts of land and forests on the western side of the Valley from the Twisp River drainage down to Lake Chelan have not burned in many years. These areas are home to dense, homogenous forests: prime environment for large, intense fire events. Coupled with the threat of cheatgrass, a highly invasive and flammable grass that can take over burned shub-steppe landscapes following a fire, the danger for fires in 2015 remains present.

So how do we ensure that people and structures are safe while allowing fire to play its natural role in surrounding lands and forest? According to Richy, it takes everybody from the Forest Service, to landowners, to communities, in partnership, to achieve that this goal. From a high level perspective, forest restoration is key and several overarching strategies that impact each other need to be at play including:
* Management of whole landscapes
* Management for patterns
* Restoration of native fire regimes
* Placing fire treatments in strategic places
* Restoration of natural patches in landscape
* Restoration of fire tolerant structures like Ponderosa Pine
* Long term planning

As the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest District builds and puts forth plans to include these approaches, each year they are continuing to address the identification and direct treatment of high priority areas, and high fire threat areas. To do so the Forest Service does a detailed characterization and analysis of a watershed broken down in many small sections based on differences in plant type, age, size, tree density, topography, and more. Combined with historical data and future projections, the Forest Service is able to determine priority areas for treatment.

While the Forest Service is working in the woods to conduct fire treatment, landowners and communities can also do their part to protect homes and developed areas. Just as the Forest Service builds fire lines to block fire progression, homeowners should be doing the same to their property. Removing flammable material and sources of ignition from within 30 feet of a home, keeping an irrigated lawn around homes, and ensuring trees within 70 feet of a home are planted sparingly can all go a long way to protect property. Firewise provides more detailed information and recommendations.

To truly protect homes and people, the old saying rings true: it takes a village. Communities and their residents need to work together with each other and with entities like the Forest Service and Department of Natural Resources. Collaborative planning and fire prevention treatment by people, communities, the private sector, and the public sector are key to living with fire.