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Protecting Forests From Increasing Wildfires

Courtney Flatt

This summer, the Carlton Complex wildfire swept through north-central Washington. The fire consumed more acres than any other fire in the state’s history. Now, ecologists are trying to make forests more sustainable to help prevent these large-scale fires.

Fire ecologist Susan Prichard was driving from Seattle to her home in Winthrop just as the Carlton Complex fire picked up.

Prichard: “I saw the plume of smoke, and I felt the wind. At that moment, I hadn’t even possibly considered that the fire could race all the way down to the Columbia River.”

All she could think about was the town of Pateros, right in the path of the firestorm. More than 300 homes were destroyed in the Carlton Complex.

We hop into Prichard’s pickup truck to tour some of the damaged landscape outside Winthrop.

Her truck winds down bumpy forest service roads near the heart of the fire. Some hillsides are virtually untouched by the flames. Others are scarred with orange, mostly dead Ponderosa pine trees.

We turn a corner in an area Prichard thinks looks relatively okay. We’re met by blackened matchsticks – once Ponderosa pine trunks.

Reporter: “Oh wow.”
Prichard: “It’s so dramatic. This change. This one puts me over the edge because I feel, I just feel this sense of complete replacement here. That this whole landscape, this whole Upper Finley Canyon is going to need to recover, and it’s going to take a long time.”

Maybe 40 years.

Prichard says treating forests today could help slow future wildfires.

Credit Courtney Flatt / Earthfix
The heat from the Carlton Complex was so extreme that it caused some Ponderosa pine needles to bend upward. "They're not supposed to go that direction," Susan Prichard said.

In 2006, the Tripod Complex burned near Winthrop. In that area, patches of forest had been thinned. Controlled burns reduced the amount of wood and debris on the ground – fuel for fires. As a result in 2006, those patches were often spared.

Prichard: “That will be important in the future because if this area comes back completely even aged and densely stocked, then it’s possibly predisposed to another big event.”

Reese Lolley is a forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. He expects 300 to 500 percent more wildfires in Eastern Washington over the next century. He says that’s why we need to thin forests and conduct controlled burns now.

Lolley: “The more we can work with fire in a beneficial way that leaves a forest better condition than when it was there before, what we’re doing to restore forests make them more resilient with a changing climate.”

Near the top of a mountain outside Yakima, the trees become dense. The Nature Conservancy is working to create gaps in this stand of trees.

Buzzing chainsaws cut through the silence of the forest.
Forester Matt Dahlgreen says this stand has about 350 trees per acre. Way too many.

Dahlgreen: “The catch is, it’s been so long since it’s been thinned, I can’t open it up a whole lot because of the expense. So what I’m trying to do here is just kind of buy this stand some time.”

Buying it time with thinning and a controlled burn next year.

A peer-reviewed study by The Nature Conservancy recently found that 9.5 million acres of forest in Washington and Oregon need thinning and controlled burns now.

Driving around the Carlton Complex, Susan Prichard adds another more “radical” tool to help restore forests: allowing more wildfires to occur.
Prichard: “But it’s a big leap because we’ve had a century of fire suppression and doing exactly the opposite. Also, we have a huge fuels problem, so we are trying to reintroduce fire in a pretty volatile situation, so it has to be done pretty carefully.”

Prichard says there’s evidence that areas burned by smaller wildfires can help stop larger wildfires in their tracks. Although she says there may be no way to completely prevent a wind-driven fire like the Carlton Complex.

Copyright 2014 Earthfix

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based correspondent for the Northwest News Network.