After the Fire

wildfire aerial image courtesy of WSU ExtensionThe number of people affected by wildfire in Washington state this year is heartbreaking and tragic. As fires continue to spread as this is being written, we pray for the safety of humans and animals and their dwellings. We hope that all are taking steps to save lives as the top priority and trust that homes and livelihoods will rebuilt after this storm passes.

After the fire, there is a lot you can do to retake control of your lives and move assuredly to restore your land, tend your animals and build anew. Following these suggestions will help you get back to enjoying your forestland while actively working to minimize the risk that wildfire will menace you again in the future.

The first step, as is the case after every dire emergency, is to stay calm and take solace in all that you still have: your lives, your family and a caring community – local, statewide and nationally – that will help you get through this, and a government with enough resources and caring professionals to provide meaningful support.

The next thing you need to do is to identify the resources you will need and determine who you need to contact to get help with these. This initial stage may involve food, water and shelter and begin with contacting the Red Cross as well as families or friends who can help.

After that you are ready to begin building anew. If you have animals loose, injured or unaccounted for, finding and getting help to them will likely be your most immediate priority. Within the parameters of keeping yourself and anyone who may help you safe and NOT getting in the way of ongoing firefighting and rescue operations or violating evacuation/closure orders, make a rescue plan. Communicate it to others so that they will know where you are before proceeding.

Safety first

Once it is safe to get back into an area, you will want to walk, ride or drive through your property and do a preliminary assessment. First look for anything that poses an ongoing danger – areas rendered unstable by fire that could develop into a landslide, for example. Other hazards might include areas where trees have burned at the base leaving them in imminent danger of falling, or extensive areas where roots have burned out opening the risk that people or animals could fall into the holes created. BE CAREFUL during this early reconnaissance! Trees can fall without warning, the ground can be unstable and have hidden holes and the ends of burned sticks can be very sharp.

If possible, find and review your FOREST MANAGEMENT PLAN. The property may look dramatically different in the immediate aftermath of a fire—the plan’s maps and pictures will be helpful in your assessment. Your plan will also provide a reminder of your objectives, giving context around which to rebuild at an emotional and difficult time. The best publication available for learning about post-wildfire rehabilitation is “After the Burn: Assessing and Managing your Forestland after a Wildfire” by Yvonne Barkley. This 78-page online publication also is available as a .pdf file from the University of Idaho Extension. There also is a lot of information currently available from the Washington Natural Resources Conservation Service’s After the Fire: Resources for Recovery web page.

A new resource to check is the new wildfire recovery website hosted by Washington State University Extension.

Agencies you will want to contact in the near term include your local Conservation District, the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and its Washington state offices, the Washington State Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and Agriculture, and the USDA Farm Service Agency. Each organizations is likely to have access to federal funds that they will administer to help people to rebuild and restore. Information you will want to be able to provide includes how many acres were burned, how completely these acres burned, your forest type (major tree species), amount and type of fencing damaged or destroyed and other important “metrics” that will help determine recovery needs. Other specific features to look for which may help prioritize your restoration work include fire lines cleared down to mineral soil or any other disturbed areas that can serve as entry points for invasive weeds. Preventing establishment in these spots is way easier than getting rid of weeds after establishment! Restoration techniques can include re-covering fire lines with forest floor material, or seeding so that you—not the random flight of weed seeds—determine what grows there.

Longer term, you will want to determine if the damage you suffered qualifies as “casualty loss” by checking the National Timber Tax website, which provides “Tax Management for Timberland Owners.” For information on Washington State taxes check the Department of Revenue website and search on “forest tax.”

Salvaging timber

Eventually you will want to take a good look at the extent of tree mortality, what you can anticipate about the rate and amount of decline in timber value, and what options for salvage logging exist. There is a lot to think about in this regard. Timber that may have had value before a fire may not now, not just because of loss in wood quality but due to simple economics of supply and demand. The Inland Northwest has had a declining number of mills for years and after a fire they are likely to be offered as much wood as they can handle by people eager to salvage some value from killed timber. As supply increases, prices will drop. The logging infrastructure, including the number of fallers, truck drivers, etc., has also declined, so there may be long waits to even get your timber felled and moved to mills. Having a Forest Management Plan and a relationship with a mill, a consulting forester, and a logger is an advantage at a difficult time like this.

Avoiding scams

As always after a disaster, be on your guard for people presenting themselves to be something they are not and offering help to you with timber harvest or restoration activities. There is no licensing requirement for a consulting forester in Washington and literally anyone can advertise as such. It is highly recommended that you work with a consulting forester to restore your property but please make sure they are legitimate. Find one that was in business BEFORE the fire hit. Find one that is certified by the Association of Consulting Foresters and is a member of the Society of American Foresters—an association with a strict code of ethics focused on professionalism and adhering to the landowner’s best interests. The Washington Farm Forestry Association has chapters throughout the state. Its members have a wealth of practical knowledge about management that works in your area, or does not. They also will know the local cast of characters, and can help you distinguish professionals from opportunists.

It is very important to note that this year we are predicted to have an EL NINO weather event in the Pacific Northwest which could produce unusually high precipitation and high intensity storms this fall and winter. Following a season of fires, this could mean flooding and debris flows. If you have streams or water channels prone to flooding, or banks that may now be unstable, check with local authorities to assess whether there is an imminent threat and what action should be taken.

We at WSU Extension and DNR are thinking about all of you as the fires continue to burn while we publish this e-newsletter. We will be reaching out with as much help, advice, education and financial resources as we can muster to get through this difficult time. With the destructive side of fire so much in evidence now, it is hard to remember the positive role that fire plays in re-setting trajectories towards improved timber growth, forest health, and wildlife habitat. Our aim is to do our best to help everyone make that more than just a saying.

By Steve McConnell, Regional WSU Extension Forestry Specialist, smcconnell@spokanecounty.org

and Dean Hellie, Stevens County Conservation District