Forestland recovery after the Taylor Bridge Fire

Taylor Bridge Fire
Aircraft from several agencies responded to the Taylor Bridge Fire. Photo: Inciweb.com

On August 13 near a construction site, the Taylor Bridge Fire grew at a contagious rate through range and forestland.  Air tankers spewed retardant while helicopters pounded the fire with water-drops. Over 600 firefighters were mobilized. By August 28 the fire was declared contained, but not before Governor Chris Gregoire declared a state of emergency after nearly 24,000 acres (37 square miles) of grassland, sage brush, and timber was burnt. Livestock losses were in the hundreds, and 60 homes were destroyed.

Igniting about three miles southeast of Cle Elum, the fire was contained on the west by Hwy 970, the Yakima River and Route 10 to the south, and near Reecer Creek and Hwy 97 to the north and east. Route 10 near the Yakima River remains closed at the time of this publication.

Taylor Bridge-
View of area burned in Taylor Bridge Fire. Photo by Gordon King/Yakima Herald-Republic.

So what do you do after the burn?

Fast forward eight weeks to an all-day educational program aimed at helping forest and rangeland owners begin to answer questions like “what’s to be expected now?” Hosted by the Unionville Ranch, over 100 families and individuals filled a roping arena on Saturday, October 13, 2012. The event was sponsored by WSU Extension, in partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, US Forest Service, Kittitas Conservation District, Kittitas County, and The Nature Conservancy.

Topics included rangeland impacts, forestland impacts, wildlife habitat impacts, reforestation, working with consulting foresters and the realities of salvaging timber. Other information was available regarding timber casualty loss taxation, noxious weeds, and a variety of technical and financial assistance programs.

The program concluded with a hand-on assessment of tree damage due to flames that scorched the crowns of trees. Utilizing a publication generously provided by the University of Idaho and appropriately titled “After the Burn” (free for download),  participants were able to assess the probability of tree mortality due to the severity of the needle scorch, and the proportion to which the crown was burned.

Calling out from a crowd of landowners while holding up a table from the publication, Karen Ripley, DNR Forest Health Program Manager, asked, “What is the diameter of the tree?”

WSU Extension forester Andy Perleberg, arms blackened by the soot while reaching the measuring tape around the bole of the charred Ponderosa Pine, replied “20 inches.”

Karen asked the crowd to estimate to percentage of the crown that had been burnt by the flames, visually obvious by the color of the needles changed from a deep green to a light tan – the group concluded that it was 50 percent  burnt.

Running her finger across the table, Karen arrived at their answer: 15 percent.

“This means that the tree has a 15 percent chance of dying, or if there were 100 20-inch diameter trees, 15 would die.” Karen qualified this statement by adding “it also depends on the condition of the tree prior to being burnt. If the tree has a pre-existing condition that would cause it to be stressed, such as water competition with other trees due to drought, or perhaps a root disease, then the tree would have even less chance of surviving.”

Karen also explained that bark beetles can easily become a problem following a fire, and that trees injured from the fire may be sufficiently stressed so that the tree’s natural ability to “pitch out” boring beetles may be unsuccessful. She said that managing the density of the trees so they do not compete for water with one another is a reasonable practice because it helps the trees get the upper hand on bark beetles.

WSU Kittitas County Extension Director and Livestock-Grazing specialist Tip Hudson discussed post-fire revegetation of grasses, as well as weed control.

“Many livestock owners want to know when it’s appropriate to turn cattle back onto the range, and that can be facilitated through active sewing of appropriate grass seed,” Tip said.

Tip also discussed the impact fire can have on soils. Depending on the soil type, the type of vegetation destroyed, and the intensity and duration of the fire, soil can become hydrophobic, that is, water repellent. A hydrophobic soil slows the movement of water through the soils and expedites run-off, he explained.

Erin Kruetz, forester from the NRCS, explained methods of reducing water erosion after a fire, and John Trobaugh, DNR Webster Nursery manager, gave a thorough presentation on the necessity of selecting appropriate seedlings for reforestation. he also explained which type of seedling – bare root versus container-grown plugs – will be most successful following a fire in rocky soil types.

DNR helicopter
A helicopter from Washington State Department of Natural Resources scoops water to drop on the Taylor Bridge Fire. Photo: Inciweb.

While the participants’ expectations of the workshops were fulfilled,  a lot of work remains to be done.  At the very least, attendees learned about resources that will help them make future, difficult decisions.

“In a weird way, I somehow feel better just knowing that I’m not alone in my recovery efforts,” one landowner said after the meeting.

Kittitas County would like impacted landowners to know that due to heat and smoke damage, items outside and inside of home often must be treated or discarded. For instructions on what to do about your home and belongings, see the Kittitas Fire Marshal’s brochure After The Fire.

by Andy Perleberg, WSU Extension
andyp@wsu.edu