Twenty-five Mile Creek Fall Burn 2016
I am feeling a little silly. Knowing that a prescribed fire was going to be lit nearby, I took my tent down thinking it might get holes burned in it by falling embers. In retrospect, that was not going to happen. This fire is in the hands of people who proceed with utmost caution. I am with the U.S. Forest Service at a place called Grouse Mountain Campground up above Lake Chelan. The forest here is made up of Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine trees. Kyle Cannon is the FMO (Fire Management Officer) for both the Chelan and Entiat Ranger Districts. Kyle is the one with the most experience, but he is giving younger people the opportunity to be leaders. Jeff Bouschor Assistant FMO is the burn boss, today. Assets are the twenty person Chelan Initial Attack crew led by Ben Woodward and a Type 3 engine with its 800 gallon water tank and hundreds of feet of hose, just in case things don't go as planned. The Initial Attack crew, which normally defends against wildfires has become fire-lighters with the ability to once again be fire-fighters if need be. The main tool of the day is the drip torch, a canister that holds a mixture of diesel and gasoline.
Prescribed fire lives in the space between conditions that are too wet for a fire to take hold, and conditions that are too hot, too dry, too windy, and likely to jump any fire-line. It is late September and the Forest Service is burning a north facing slope, that gets minimal hours of sun during the day to dry things out. Two days earlier an attempt was made to burn, and even though it was a sunny day the forest could not be set on fire. At 74 percent the relative humidity was too high that day. Today the relative humidity is 51 percent, and a test fire burns nicely. The idea is to reduce ready to ignite fuels including years of accumulated twigs and branches and flammable shrubs. A stated parameter on this fire is four- foot flame lengths, although it is impossible to be precise. At times during the day, trees torched, with flames running up into the crown, but not spreading to other trees. The controls on fire effect in a prescribed fire are the choice of conditions under which burning takes place, and the lighting sequence. Close attention is paid to fuel moisture, temperature, relative humidity, and wind. Fire is laid down in strips starting at the top of the hill.
Five members of Chelan Initial Attack are doing the lighting, the other fifteen patrol the pre-made fire-lines that bound the area to be burned, each with a shovel, Pulaski, or McLeod. The fire-lighting is tough work, as the hillside is steep and in places, thick with shiny-leaf ceanothus, a tangled brush that hides numerous logs under foot. Kari Hirschberger leads the lighters, each of whom carries a drip torch. She starts them out one at a time on a level traverse across the slope, pausing one minute between each person. Each lighter begins their traverse about fifteen feet lower on the slope than the previous. Fire being fire, it mostly burns upslope, where it does not get very far before it reaches an area burned minutes before. Never is there an opportunity for a build-up of heat. The width between ribbons of fire is adjusted to take into account variations in the amount and type of fuels. Kyle Cannon refers to prescribed fire as an art. There is a lot of variability and an element of the unpredictable.
Eighteen years ago in 1998, there was a burn-out action during the North Twenty-five Mile Fire, an 8,500 -acre conflagration. In many respects burn-outs during wildfires are much the same as prescribed fire. Drip torches are used to ignite the woods in the path of a wildfire, usually from the top of a hill down as in a prescribed fire, and often at night. The big difference is that there is little time to do things carefully during a burn-out, and the weather conditions may not be favorable for a low intensity fire. Never the less some of the results from burn-outs are quite good. In the case of Grouse Mountain, the fire was fairly hot during the burn-out operation and took quite a few mature trees. A salvage operation followed the wildfire in 1998 removing some merchantable logs, but leaving many dead trees as snags for wildlife. Years later, a few snags still stand, but most are now on the ground.
Under the natural order of things, it is time for another fire. There is much dead wood on the forest floor. Besides trees killed in 1998, there are piles of post-sized logs from thinning that was done over fifteen years ago. Fire professionals refer to piles of dead wood as "jackpots", wildlife biologists might look at them differently. Jumbled up piles of dead trees and limbs are prime habitat for rodents including the bushy-tailed woodrat, a preferred prey item of the northern spotted owl. Some have argued that any removal of fallen logs represents degradation of habitat of an endangered species, and should not be done. However, it is fuels on the ground that enable fires to get into the forest canopy often killing all of the trees over large areas. A quick look around reveals hillsides that have been "nuked" in the fires of 2014 and 2015.
Historically, frequent fires kept the forest sparse as most young trees did not live through the frequent flames. A benefit of moderate intensity fire is the scorching the lower branches of larger trees. Scorched limbs die and eventually fall off. The end result is a forest canopy that is high off the ground where fire cannot reach the flammable needles except under extreme conditions. The Forest Service is out to "raise the height to live crown" through prescribed burning. To the layman it looks like damage inflicted on trees, but it gives the trees a much better chance of survival in the long term. It also makes for safer conditions for fire-fighters in the inevitable wildfire. A fire on the ground is a much safer and easier thing to contend with than a crown fire.
Prescribed fire is about more than reduction of fuels. The ecosystem evolved with fire and periodically needs it, in moderation. In a low intensity fire, nutrients are recycled in the burning process and the soil is left enriched. Grasses and herbaceous plants will grow better the following spring, and the year after. The seeds of some plants require smoke and fire to germinate. Woody shrubs are particularly well adapted to fire. While the fire may burn them to the ground, the roots survive and put out vigorous shoots, that deer and elk relish. Buckbrush is another name for shiny-leaf ceanothus. Burning ceanothus only renews it, rather than destroying it.
At the end of the day, burn boss Jeff Bouschor is pleased. Looking around, thirty acres does not seem like much, but it’s a start. The next day forty-five acres is burned. Much more could be done if there was the societal will. Intentional burning for ecosystem benefit and fuels reduction has been around since long before the settling of the west. Native Americans had been doing it for thousands of years, and at first some Europeans adopted Native American ways. Then came along the 1910 fire and professional foresters began a campaign to ban all fire. We tried that and it has not worked. Now we need to put fire back, but there are many hurdles including risk aversion, intolerance for smoke, and cost. Fire is unavoidable, but we can have influence over how it happens through prescribed fire, often in tandem with thinning. The small burn I watched butts up against several others done in years prior. The end result is a wide swath where a wildfire burning from up-lake and heading for homes and cabins might be halted, but there are no guarantees.
Thinking about it, the genie has been let out of the bottle, and done a lot of good work, without going out of bounds. Much, but not all of the dead wood on the ground has been burned up. There are fewer small trees crowding the forest, less flammable material in the way of brush, and in the future the forest canopy will be higher. In essence it took four hours to burn the same area that would take ten minutes to burn in a wind-driven wildfire moving uphill on a hot summer day. The difference in outcome is that prescribed fire has lightly brushed the forest, rather than killing all of the trees and re-setting the landscape. The best way to avoid having a bad fire is to have a good fire!