Wash. pilot project uses fires to help fight wildfires
The new effort attempts to make it easier for burn plans to get a go-ahead from air quality officials who want to ensure the weather favors smoke dispersal
By Kate Prengaman
The Associated Press
NACHES, Wash. — About 10 miles from where hundreds of firefighters were working to contain the 1,300 acre Rock Creek Fire, a much smaller crew was purposefully lighting the dry forest ablaze last week.
The prescribed fire in the Rattlesnake Creek watershed to the west of Nile is an example of growing interest from forest managers — facing skyrocketing wildfire costs — in fighting fire with fire. Last week's burn was planned years before the Rock Creek Fire broke out, but the juxtaposition of both fires on the Naches Ranger District illustrates why prescribed fire is so important, said Jason Emhoff, fuels technician for the district.
"We are trying to get fire-adapted landscapes like this to a point that they can accept fire and not have it be catastrophic," Emhoff said. "For too long, we didn't do this, so Rock Creek happened, Meeks Table happened."
Fighting fire with fire works because it reduces the fuel available to burn the next time a fire sparks, but its use has been limited by concerns over smoke impacts, complicated planning and costs.
A new effort aimed at expanding the use of prescribed fire in the state and addressing those limitations launched this month. The goal is to learn from the Rattlesnake Creek burn and others planned for a total of 11,000 acres in Eastern Washington this fall.
Most of those burns are on Forest Service land, because the state has shied away from prescribed fire in the past, due to smoke, safety and staffing concerns. But that needs to change, according to Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who sponsored legislation authorizing the project last spring.
"What most people don't realize is that fire is essential for the natural health of our forests," Kretz said in a statement this spring. The devastation of the recent fires in Okanogan County made Kretz realize the state needs to use prescribed fire to improve the forests' resiliency and protect communities and firefighters.
Known as the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project, the new effort attempts to make it easier for burn plans to get a go-ahead from air quality officials who want to ensure the weather favors smoke dispersal.
"The Legislature wanted us to look at ways to increase the use of prescribed burning as a tool in our forests, which need it broadly," said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smilie. "We are looking at ways to use it without impacting the communities that are sensitive to smoke."
Smoke regulations have long been the limiting factor on prescribed fire, which is frustrating for practitioners because wildfires also create plenty of smoke, said Reese Lolley, chair of the Washington Prescribed Fire Council who also works for The Nature Conservancy in Yakima.
"All the models predict that we are going to have a lot more fire, even if we put a lot more resources into suppression, so we're going to have a lot more smoke," Lolley said. "We're going to have fire in our forests, the question is how do you want your smoke?"
Last Thursday, smoke from the prescribed fire was wafting west, toward the wilderness and away from Naches, which Emhoff said was exactly what he wanted to see.
A dozen firefighters walked in a wide formation through a recently logged Ponderosa pine forest, using drip torches to ignite and spread a fire that quickly engulfed small shrubs and lapped at tall trunks. Naches District firefighter Ty Johnson acted as the burn boss, directing the lighting crew so that the fire didn't get too intense.
It's safe for firefighters to set the forest here on fire because it's already been thinned by a timber harvest. Unnaturally dense, stressed forests are driving much of the wildfire risk in the region, and a combination of thinning and prescribed fire restores a more open, healthy forest in which fire functions to maintain, not destroy, Lolley said.
"I couldn't have asked for a more textbook picture of what we want from these fire effects," Johnson said as a dense cluster of small trees burst into flames, a sudden outburst of big, aggressive fire compared to the quieter sizzling of brush and shrubs.
Burning those trees reduces the dangerous ladder fuels that could have carried a future fire from the forest floor, where it's relatively safe, into a destructive canopy fire, Johnson said. Most large pines survive having their lower branches, the ladder fuels, burned off, he added.
A crew of 20 firefighters burned 58 acres that day, one small chunk of a 6,000-acre project area the Forest Service has been working on for several years. The burn units are different — some burned lightly and others intensely — to mimic the varied pattern of natural fire on the landscape, Emhoff said.
After the flames subside, the black on the bottom but still mostly green on top forest will be healthier and safer for firefighters someday in the future, when the next fire burns over this ridge.
"I hope we can do more of this," Johnson said. "It really helps us out and helps the forest."
That firefighters see fire as a tool, rather than the enemy, might come as a surprise. But that's one of many misconceptions this pilot project is trying to correct, so there will be more community support for using prescribed fire in the future, Lolley said.
"We need to move away from the idea that fire is bad, bad, bad," Lolley said. "Fire can help protect the health of our forests or it can destroy what we love about our forests, right, the key is differentiating."