Researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Washington and other collaborators throughout the west have created a road map to help adapt dry forests and landscapes to new fire regimes. In a recent published paper, they found through reviewing forest history and a century of fire suppression, that intentional low-severity burning reduces fuels that accumulate over time, and lessens the severity of future wildfires.
Wildfire smoke invaded the North Sound again last month, making that four out of the last five years North Sound air quality became a serious concern. Fortunately, this year’s wildfire smoke episode was short-lived, only a few days and not nearly as horrid as recent previous years.
But why are we seeing more wildfire smoke in recent years than for decades before that? There are two primary reasons. First, the number of wildfires in Western North America has soared so far in this century and some of those wildfires have burned with greater intensity and fire behavior that seasoned fire fighters have stated they have never previously seen.
The other reason is we are seeing warmer summer season temperatures that are also extending into spring and fall, making for a longer wildfire season. This year’s epic heat wave in late June was just another example. The heat dries our vegetation more thoroughly, making it ready to accept fire, and burn hotter and spread far more readily.
The practice of total fire suppression in the U.S. began with the Great Fire of 1910, a blaze in Northeast Washington, Northern Idaho, Northwest Montana, and Southeast British Columbia that killed 87 people, destroyed several towns and burned about 3 million acres, roughly the size of Connecticut.
The research found that the drastic change in how fire maintains a natural balance in the landscape has resulted in the volatile situation we find ourselves in today. James Johnston of the OSU College of Forestry noted, “We helped summarize knowledge about how fire shaped the landscape for hundreds of years using a variety of sources including historical records and tree ring research. We’ve shown that millions of acres of forest have significantly departed from their historical condition and need restoration.”
Andrew Merschel, also of OSU Forestry, said, “Current conditions are much more vulnerable to the direct and indirect effects of seasonal and episodic increases in fire and drought, especially in a climate that’s rapidly warming. But management that realigns or adapts fire-excluded conditions to the increases in fire and drought can help ecosystems and human communities.”
Merschel noted that historical records for nearly 1 million acres of fire-dependent ponderosa pine forests show that prior to 1918, a surface fire burning more than 200,000 acres happened about every 15 years. The frequent fires resulted in minimal fuel accumulation and led to forests that were resistant to fire and drought, with trees commonly 300 years old or older.
Merschel added, “We can’t rely on suppression to prevent megafires in fire-dependent forests. We need restoration that includes careful reintroduction of low-intensity surface fires as part of a viable strategy for adapting forests and communities to climate change, and our window for implementing them is closing fast.”
Earlier this year, the Washington Dept of Natural Resources and its partners completed their Forest Health Treatment Tracker, a means that follows the road map laid out by these researchers. This interactive tool illustrates which treatments are taking place across landscapes throughout the state. Using strategies like prescribed burns and thinning, forests and landscapes can be restored to a more natural and resilient healthy condition, boost jobs in rural Washington, and reduce the threat of wildfires.
After more than a century of fire suppression, restoring our forests and rural landscapes to their more natural fire process is going to take years of a sustained effort.
Skagit County has relaxed some outdoor burning regulations, but be aware there are still some restrictions. Please see this link if you live in Skagit County to make sure you adhere to their rules and be safe. Skagit County Outdoor Burn Regulations