October 16, 2016, marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the wildfire outbreak — Fire Storm ‘91 — that demonstrated the deadly hazards that can occur when urban development encroaches on wildlands.
The City of Spokane’s fire central dispatch center received its first wildfire call of the day at 8:49 a.m. on Oct 16. By noon all available county, local and Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire resources had been committed to contain an unprecedented outbreak of wildfires in the area. By 9:00 p.m. local dispatch centers had fielded some 2,000 fire-related calls.
When everything finally calmed down and numbers were tallied it was discovered that 92 separate wildfires had burned more than 35,000 acres over a four-county area that included Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens counties. In all, 114 homes were destroyed and two fatalities were linked to the fires.
Weather was a major factor on this day. No precipitation had been recorded in the previous 41 days and northeast Washington was in its fifth year of lower than average precipitation. Wind gusts of up to 62 mph on Oct. 16 caused the fires to spread rapidly. Wind also was a factor in fire starts when gusts pushed trees into powerlines.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) case study on Fire Storm ’91 concluded that homeowners can indeed take steps to reduce the risks of losing their homes and other structures to wildfire by creating “defensible space” to reduce flammability and fire intensity of the land surrounding their homes.
The NFPA also found that during Fire Storm ’91, homes that had 529 feet of defensible space had a 50 percent lower chance of being destroyed during the fire (see table: Home Loss vs. Defensible Space).
Since 1991 we have had numerous fire seasons where we lost structures. One common fact in all these fires is that homeowners can make a big difference by creating defensible space that reduces wildfire risks to their homes.
In 2002, the Firewise Community recognition program was launched to encourage homeowners to work with neighbors to reduce the impact of wildfire to their communities. Washington state residents have taken this message to heart; our state has the third highest number of Firewise Communities in the nation at 135. In 2016, we added 23 new Firewise Communities, the highest number of new communities in the nation. By the end of 2016 both of these numbers will have increased.
Washington State DNR has a goal of making Washington state the leader with the most Firewise Communities in the nation. To help communities become Firewise-recognized DNR created the Firewise Challenge and offers grants to help communities make themselves more resilient to the next wildfire.
If you want to learn more about what you can do to protect your home or your community from the next wildfire, call your local DNR region office. Be sure to also ask about grants available to help you and your neighbors become a Firewise Community.
For more information on making your home or community safe from wildfire, please call or visit a DNR regional office near you:
Fall is just around the corner and for those who own forested land, if you have not already done so, you may want to consider thinning some trees out. People who own forested property are often hesitant to remove trees for various reasons. Why should you thin? What are the advantages?
Many people think of a forest as a stand of trees existing together in harmony. In reality, a forest, particularly a young forest, contains trees competing with one another for their life-sustaining resources: sunlight, water, and nutrients.
There’s even a priority list of sorts within individual trees. It varies depending on the species but, in general, the order in which resources are allocated is, from highest priority to lowest priority:
Maintenance of respiration
Production of fine roots
Insect and disease resistance mechanisms, and
A dense stand of tall, thin lodgepole pine, is a good example of a stand where there are enough available resources to allocate up to priority number 4, height growth, but not enough resources to allocate much to priority number 5, diameter growth, or beyond. This lack of resources will affect overall forest health, as the trees will not be able to allocate resources to insect and disease resistance mechanisms.
What sort of insect and disease resistance mechanisms do trees have? Let’s use bark beetles as an example, since certain species of bark beetles can cause extensive tree mortality.
In most coniferous species a resin duct system produces oleoresin when the tree is wounded, such as a broken branch. Oleoresin is basically a mixture of essential oil (turpentine) and nonvolatile solids (rosin). Oleoresin is considered the primary defense of conifers against bark beetle attack. Beetles that attempt to attack a conifer that is in good health and capable of producing adequate, pressurized oleoresin are typically immobilized in the resin or killed by drowning in it. The chemical makeup of the oleoresin is important as well, as some of the volatiles released from the oleoresin are toxic to bark beetles.
Dense stands, which tend to grow slowly, are consistently associated with bark beetle infestations. The susceptibility of a stand to bark beetle infestations may be changed by reducing competition between trees; in other words, thinning. In western North America, thinning has long been advocated as a preventative measure to reduce or alleviate the amount of bark beetle caused tree mortality. Thinning improves tree vigor and growth. It also decreases the likelihood of bark beetle attacks on individual trees by allowing the site’s available resources to be concentrated on fewer stems, which means trees will have enough resources to allocate to priority number 6 (insect and disease resistance mechanisms).
Wildfire risk reduction
Successful fire exclusion over the past 60 to 70 years has resulted in greater stand densities and a change in species composition. In that span of time, many forests in dry ecosystems, such as eastern Washington, have transitioned from fire-adapted, open ponderosa pine stands to dense pine and Douglas-fir stands. In moist forests, the change has been from open stands of western white pine and western larch to relatively short, closed stands of grand fir, western hemlock and western redcedar. These changes have led to an increase in the occurrence of crown fires (fire that spreads from treetop to treetop), the most intense type of wildfire, and often the most difficult to contain.
Ponderosa pine, western white pine and western larch all tend to be tall and self-prune (the natural removal of lower limbs that don’t receive enough sunlight to survive). Western white pine and western larch have lower volume crowns and carry their crowns well above surface fuels compared to true firs, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and western redcedar. Because of these attributes, western white pine and western larch do not carry crown fires well and tend not to create ladder fuels (fuels in the lower canopy that carry fire up into the crowns of trees). In contrast, stands dominated by true firs, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and/ or western redcedar do not self-prune well. They tend to carry large branches low in the canopy and have relatively voluminous crowns. Stands dominated by these species usually support crown fires.
Thinning cannot alter all variables that influence fire behavior, but it can influence factors such as species composition, available fuel, fuel arrangement, fuel moisture and surface winds. The objective of thinning in wildfire risk reduction is usually to prevent or slow the spread of crown fire by reducing surface and ladder fuels. Thinning also raises the height of overstory crowns and breaks up the connectedness of crowns, which reduces tree-to-tree spread of crown fires.
Species associated with fairly open canopies and an open forest floor may benefit from thinning treatments. Thinning a stand of trees increases the amount of sunlight reaching the understory, which stimulates the growth of grasses, wildflowers and native shrubs. Elk, deer, and moose will likely benefit from the increase in forage quantity and quality. Small mammals such as chipmunks and deer mice may increase in number, particularly after thinning in Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine forests. This may be advantageous to species of hawks, owls and eagles that prey on small mammals in open forests and small clearings. Although not often considered as part of the wildlife community, pollinators such as moths and butterflies may also benefit from changes in structural diversity as a result of fuel reduction treatments that increase the amount of light reaching foliage and the forest floor.
If you are managing your forested land for future timber production, thinning will be an important part of your management plan. Thinning releases resources to the residual trees allowing them to allocate to their fifth priority, diameter growth, which leads to an increase in tree volume. This increase in diameter growth results in an increase in overall stand value.
The tools and methods by which thinning is implemented are quite varied, and can result in significantly different stand structures. The type of thinning you select may depend on your objectives and on individual stand characteristics, such as species composition.
When managing for forest health and fuel reduction, private landowners typically use the “thin from below” method. Thinning from below consists of removing trees from the lower canopy, leaving larger trees to occupy the site. This method mimics mortality caused by competition or surface fires and concentrates available resources on larger, healthier, fire-adapted trees, while removing the stagnant, unhealthy trees.
Thinning is best accomplished in the late summer and early fall if possible. At this time trees will be least susceptible to damage from the thinning operation and the populations of insects that may be attracted to the slash created will be low. Winter also is an acceptable time to thin, but can lead to soil compaction and erosion if done at the wrong time. Thinning in spring and summer is not recommended as it can attract insects such as bark beetles and can affect wildlife, particularly nestlings.
By Melissa Fischer, Forest Health Specialist, DNR Northeast Region, Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Resources to learn more:
Fettig, C.J., Klepzig, K.D., Billings, R.F., Munson, A.S., Nebeker, T.E., Negron, J.F., and Nowak, J.T. 2007. The effectiveness of vegetation management practices for prevention and control of bark beetle infestations in coniferous forests of the western and southern United States. Forest Ecology and Management. 238: 24-53.
Graham, R.T., Harvey, A.E., Jain, T.B. and Tonn, J.R. 1999. The effects of thinning and similar stand treatments on fire behavior in western forests. U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. PNW-GTR-463.
Pilliod, D.S., Bull, E.L., Hayes, J.L. and Wales, B.C. 2006. Wildlife and invertebrate response to fuel reduction treatments in dry coniferous forests of the western United States: A synthesis. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. RMRS-GTR-173.
Thinning and fuels reduction are necessary treatments in today’s overstocked dry forests. But sometimes, aggressive implementation of prescriptions can degrade habitats beyond what is really needed for fuels treatments. This article will make a few suggestions on ways to balance these objectives.
If you live in a dry-but-forested area, such as eastern Washington, and are planning a thinning or harvest on your forestland, here’s a simple habitat acronym for you and any contractors you hire to keep in mind: SLLOPPS, which stands for snags, logs, legacy, openings, patches, piles and shrubs. Incorporating these seven features into your project will help reduce future risks of wildfire and insect infestation while promoting a healthy natural habitat for beneficial wildlife.
In its natural state, the dry forest ecosystem experiences frequent low-intensity fires. This cycle of periodic fire results in tree stands dominated by large, old trees and, generally, not over-stocked with smaller trees and other growth as many stands are today.
Historic photos of eastern Washington and Oregon show classic stands of old ponderosa pine (and some Douglas-fir) with riders on horses and wagons cruising through the open, grassy understory. These conditions did not occur everywhere, but the prevalence of ground fire at 7- to 15-year intervals ensured that these stands seldom suffered crown fires. Individual tree vigor was strong thanks to reduced competition for resources. Thus, fire disturbance helped maintain these forests.
These stands contained large standing dead trees as well, and some enormous down logs that could survive low intensity fires. Regeneration was often patchy, resulting in numerous openings and areas of dense regeneration that might flash out in the next fire. Many shrub species are fire adapted, and after burning would either re-sprout in clumps, or sprout from seed in the soil, creating a vigorous shrub understory.
Wildlife species, such as white headed woodpeckers and flammulated owls, are adapted to this open forest and its plentiful snag and log habitats and rich understory of shrubs.
Native Americans are believed to have played a significant role in the fire ecology of the inland Northwest. Their activities led to the landscape-shaping fires that produced the stands encountered by the early European settlers to this region. Also during this time, lightning fires often would burn until season-ending weather events such as snowfall.
Logging (until very recently) in these dry forests usually removed the large, excellent quality trees. This was economically advantageous but ecologically unfortunate, as these trees would have been the survivors of the fires. Without recognizing what we were doing, we removed the backbone of the dry forest habitat.
The biology of dry forest tree species involves producing large numbers of seeds to give a chance for a few to survive the inevitable fires. Fire suppression efforts that began in the early 20th century inevitably led to the dense stands that we see on the landscape today.
Now, we are aggressively thinning across the landscape, where funding, motivation and political will let us. Unfortunately for wildlife, caution over “fire safe” and “forest health” can lead us to produce stands that are simply “too clean” and “parked out” to serve as quality wildlife habitats.
In this article, I will discuss seven tools — snags, logs, legacy, openings, patches, piles and shrubs (SLLOPPS) — that can provide some habitat diversity while addressing the issues associated with overstocked stands and tree mortality due to stress and insects.
Prescription for Habitat Diversity
SNAGS: Some of the most important habitat features in any forest are made of dead wood; specifically, standing dead trees (snags) and down logs. Live trees with dead portions of their stems and branches can also fill this role. Insects reside in the dead wood, often feeding on fungi, while woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and other birds feed on these insects. Cavities created by woodpeckers during regular nesting and courtship behavior can provide homes for secondary cavity species such as bluebirds or flying squirrels. Because many of these species are voracious feeders on insects, including some that are forest pests, their presence helps to keep the forest healthy but only if suitable habitat is provided so that they can occupy territories for feeding and nesting.
DNR’s cost share thinning projects target dangerous fuels which are generally woody stems less than 3 inches in diameter. These smaller stems will carry fire quickly and spread flames into crowns. Larger wood, which ignites more slowly and creates less flash hazard, can be left for habitat and soil enrichment.
Snags should be greater than 10 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh) in order to provide opportunities for large excavators, such as the hairy woodpecker or flicker, to create cavities. Natural snag densities vary tremendously, so the best policy for habitat is to maintain all snags greater than 10 inches dbh, and protect them from firewood and timber harvests. Forest practices laws in Washington state require 2 wildlife trees per acre; although this is likely not a biologically optimum number, it can serve as a target for forest management. Following this rule could include creating 2 snags per acre where they do not exist. Optimum snag densities are closer to between 12 and 16 snags per acre but in managed forests this is a hard number to reach.
LEGACY: Big trees are the backbones of dry forest ecology. Keep large trees, including defective ones. They will produce more cones and branch surface area than younger stems, provide perches and nest sites, and will become future dead wood.
LOGS: Logs can be treated the same as trees by emphasizing the protection for all large pieces by preventing them from being piled or burned, and by leaving them in place. Scattering tops and large pieces of unmerchantable wood across treated units are additional desirable actions to improve habitat.
OPENINGS: Wildlife also benefits from openings—areas within the forest where all, or nearly all, of the overstory trees are not present. These openings allow shrubs and grasses to flourish as wildlife forage. Natural meadows are the best candidates for these areas, but openings also can be embedded within stands to allow big game animals to feel secure and to provide habitat for other wildlife associated with edge habitats.
PATCHES: Denser habitats made up of young conifers and shrubs provide quality habitat for many species, such as feeding or nesting songbirds, and as browse and cover for big game. Retaining small patches of trees in thinning units can provide this habitat, but it requires forethought and follow through. Before thinning, mark areas from 30 to 50 feet in depth, and at least the same distance in length, or preferably longer. These areas should be left unthinned, (or thinned lightly), in order to maintain shrubs, trees and other mid-level vegetation while providing cover for large mammals such as deer, elk and bear. These patches should be configured across forest units so as to break long-sight distances, and staggered at distances of 200-300 feet apart.
PILES: Wood piles can be left as distinct habitat elements and act as surrogates for down wood. They will provide cover for many species of wildlife. The best approach to creating piles for wildlife involve placing at least three to five layers of larger logs that are crisscrossed, or laid lengthwise in triangular arrangements. When covered with a few layers (about 2 to 3 feet deep) of fine branches, the pile will provide habitat with small interior spaces. Habitat piles also can be used as a non-burning solution for managing slash. Place piles constructed for wildlife away from overhanging trees so that if a pile should catch fire it will not act as a ladder fuel to the crowns. It’s best to provide these wildlife piles at a rate of two to three per acre, preferably in clusters away from roads, trees and structures. Because these piles are not intended as sources of firewood they should be marked for retention after the thinning work is done but before other brush or slash piles are burned.
SHRUBS: Many shrub species provide excellent fruit and vegetation for many types of wildlife. Ask your local U.S. Conservation District office which shrubs are the best for your area. Elderberry is always a good choice, as is most anything else with “berry” in the name.
Putting it All Together
A general rule of thumb for 10 to 15 percent of the project area to be made up of one, or all, of these desirable wildlife habitat elements. Providing patches of habitat for cover, or around a feature such as a snag, can provide much in the way of habitat diversity and reduce the potential impact of thinning projects on the diversity of animal and plant species that live in your forest.
If done thoughtfully, thinning projects that maintain snags, logs and shrubs a sufficient distance from overstory trees will provide quality habitat while improving the health and resilience of dry forest stands. Work closely with contractors and be very specific as to where these habitats are to be provided. Thinning will increase resilience to both fire and insects through improved individual tree vigor, which in turn benefits many wildlife species. Risk of catastrophic loss of entire stands can be avoided with good projects too. And that benefits wildlife in the long term.
Case Study: Swauk Pines, Kittitas County
In 2015, Suzanne Wade of the Kittitas County Conservation District (KCCD) partnered with private landowners at Swauk Pines, a new 50-acre development near Cle Elum made up of 3- to 8-acre parcels in a dry pine forest. The Taylor Bridge fire (2012) came very close to this area and created significant motivation for landowners, some of whom had already built residences while others were in the planning stages, to reduce their wildfire risks while maintaining wildlife habitat.
Most of the development was treated in a cost share project in which the KCCD worked closely with the thinning contractor to incorporate SLLOPPS principles into the forest treatments. These treatments included retaining large snags and logs, and including shrub patches. A bird survey was conducted before the project began to identify where to create open patches attractive to nesting birds.
As a result of the strategic approach to forest thinning, habitat quality was maintained, fire risk was reduced, and forest health improved large. Homeowners were asked to take responsibility for the areas immediately around their houses. This project is an excellent example of successfully implementing multiple objectives.
Including these habitat elements in thinning projects is only the beginning. Vegetation always grows back so the job of maintaining the levels of fuels acceptable to individual landowners is an ongoing task that will need to be revisited every few years.
Thinning and fuel reduction projects are crucial to help our forests survive the current rounds of drought and devastating wildfire. Including habitat elements in these projects is not only possible but an additional benefit of meeting our fire and forest health objectives.
For more information or to schedule a site visit to your forest property, please contact the DNR Small Forest Landowner Office. For information or assistance with habitat, contact DNR Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist, Ken Bevis at Ken.Bevis@DNR.wa.gov
In 2015, Washington state experienced a record low snowpack, below-normal spring and summer precipitation, and record high temperatures for most of the year. As a result, by August eastern Washington was experiencing extreme drought conditions that lasted through the end of October. The visible effects of this drought on tree health are already apparent and may be evident for several years, especially related bark beetle-caused mortality.
Effects of Drought Stress on Trees
During a drought, water loss through the foliage (transpiration) can exceed water uptake via the root system, resulting in increased tension within the columns that are transporting water from the roots to the crown. As drought conditions escalate, water columns can break, having deleterious effects on trees.
Symptoms of drought usually progress from the top of the tree down and from the outside in. The effects may not appear right away, but over time you may see tree foliage wilt, become chlorotic (turn yellow due to lack of chlorophyll), or redden. Newly emerging shoots may appear shrunken. Shoots and branches may die, resulting in top kill, or producing an irregular pattern of flagging in the crown. Growth loss may result from loss of foliage and damage to cambium, potentially leading to mortality.
Bark beetle outbreaks and more root disease are often associated with drought-weakened trees. The current increase in bark beetle activity in Washington is likely related to the drought conditions experienced last year.
Managing Drought Stress
Although drought stress is common in eastern Washington, it has been exacerbated by decades of fire suppression practices that caused tree stands to become more dense. Trees growing in dense, overstocked stands tend to get less water and lack the defenses to fend off invaders such as bark beetles.
Thinning stands can increase the vigor and resilience of trees because there will be fewer trees competing for scarce resources–water, in particular. When thinning, it is important to leave species that are appropriate for the site, such as pine and larch which are more drought tolerant than many types of fir. Controlling competition from other plant species in the understory can help as well.
By Melissa Fischer, Forest Health Specialist, Northeast Region, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, email@example.com
It is known that fire can be a major factor in the health of the forest. It also can be a major factor in the composition of the forest. Many of our native plants have adapted to fire, including lodgepole pine which requires fire to melt the wax on cone scales so they open to spread their seeds, and grasses which thrive after fire has killed the competing shrubs and broadleaf plants.
Native people who managed the lands of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years understood how valuable fire was in maintaining sustainable stands of native plants. They used fire as we might use chemical herbicides. Eventually, growing trees would provide too much shade for the good production of fruit, tubers, grasses and herbs. So the native people would use controlled burns to rejuvenate failing stands of edible, medicinal and spiritual plants.
Typically, the burns would be conducted in late fall or early spring. This was timed to take advantage of the plants’ ability to store nutrients in their root structures during the growing season. It also took advantage of the cool and wet times that helped control the size and heat of the fires. By keeping the fires small and fast moving, the site never got hot enough to hurt the below-ground parts of the desirable plants, but would prune back their tops and kill the unwanted plants. The trees that were encroaching on the huckleberry, camas, fescue and blackberry fields were kept at bay by fire.
The chemicals that were stored in the tops were deposited on the soil surface and then moved into the rooting zone by rains and melting snows. These chemicals such as potassium, phosphorus and micronutrients became the fertilizer that supported new plant growth. So the residue of the fire along with the energy that was stored in the roots would enable the plants to push up new growth the next spring. Fire also exposed the mineral soil by burning the duff and debris, providing an excellent seed bed for native plants.
In Washington the native peoples kept large prairies open for production of food plants, medicinal, craft materials and wildlife. What new arrivals from Europe thought were virgin prairies were in fact large pastures and gardens. This was also true of the vast berry fields in the mountains and the diverse plant system in riparian areas.
As we have controlled fire in all areas of our environment, an unfortunate result in many areas is that we have enabled nonnative plants to push out the native plants that needed fire to thrive. The nonnative plants also are better users of nitrogen runoff from agriculture and homestead lands. In some cases now the invasive plants have become so prolific that they are better able to repopulate burned area than our native plants. The native plants are no longer present in sufficient numbers to produce the seeds and new plants like the introduced plants.
So how do we take advantage of the native plants’ ability to survive fire if they are no longer in the ecosystem in numbers like they were 100 years ago? As a first step, we need to learn what native plants were growing before fire was excluded on land we manage. We can learn a lot from the work being done by restoration ecologists at universities, federal land management agencies, conservation groups and tribal governments. These entities are all looking at how to successfully replant and reseed burned- over areas with the goal of raising the numbers of native plants in the ecosystem. This will help to increase fire resiliency as well as reestablish traditional gathering areas, and create new areas on public natural resource lands. The real end goal is to provide the public with access to sustainable native plant materials.
Many forest landowners have developed a trust relationship with local Native American families who still practice traditional gathering. The landowners share the forest bounty, increasing access to local plants, while the native families teach how to manage areas for special crops.
Other great sources of information on traditional native plant systems are the journals of early explorers and botanists like David Douglas, who kept detailed descriptions of where he found plants and how they were being managed. A final great resource on native plants for Washington state residents is the Washington Native Plant Society and its website, monthly local chapter meetings, and statewide workshops.
Creating native plant gathering sites is just a matter of learning the proper management techniques, acquiring the seeds, cutting or seedlings and making it happen. Consider converting that root rot pocket into a shade garden of native plants. Or take the area under a powerline or over a utility pipeline and create a mini-prairie of native grasses, shrubs, bulbs and berries. A wet area or a frost pocket where trees will not grow can become a field of wild raspberries, currants, blueberries, blackberries and roses.
These areas can be managed sustainably without herbicides, especially if fire can be included as part of the long term rotation. Not only will you be producing native plant foods but you will be providing flowers for the native pollinators and snacks for the native animals. You will be creating perfect wildlife viewing areas across your family forest landscape.
So put on your forest gardening gloves and get started adding native plant garden plots across your family forest landscape.