Fuels Reduction and Improved Habitat: Try SLLOPPS (Snags, Logs, Legacy, Openings, Patches, Piles and Shrubs)

Overly aggressive thinning near Lake Chelan
This natural-looking setting near Lake Chelan is anything but natural. Overly aggressive thinning has left it without the snags, down logs, open patches and other features that wildlife need for habitat. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR

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.

Natural Forests

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.

Human Actions

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.

recently thinned stand with several wildlife features
This recently thinned stand on private land displays the key elements (snags, down wood, piled chipped materials, etc.) that make it useful wildlife habitat. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR

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.

Swauk Pines development before forest-thinning
BEFORE: Swauk Pines development near Cl Elum before forest-thinning treatments. Note the many small (less than 8” diameter) trees, trees with low branches and the heavy woody understory–all prone to spreading fire. Photo: Ken Bevis/DNR.

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.

Results

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.

Swauk Pines after thinning
AFTER: Swauk Pines after thinning to remove brushy overgrowth and most of the trees less than 8 inches in diameter. Note the retention of snags and patches of shrubs for wildlife. Photos: Ken Bevis/DNR

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

By Ken Bevis, DNR Landowner Assistance Wildlife Biologist, Ken.Bevis@DNR.wa.gov

 

Drought of 2015 Still Stressing Trees in 2016

Drought-stressed trees
Drought-stressed trees seen in Thurston County during the spring of 2016

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, melissa.fischer@dnr.wa.gov

Native Plants and Fire

Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in Clark County
Lacamas Prairie Natural Area in Clark County is an example of the landscapes where native peoples used fire to control vegetation for food and medicinal plants, craft materials and wildlife. Photo: DNR

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.

By Jim Freed, WSU Extension Forester Emeritus

A Wildfire Danger “Watchout” List for Summer Campers

When wildfires force evacuations, it’s not just the residents of an area who may be in harm’s way. Summer campers are vulnerable, too.

“Preparing Camps for Wildland Fire 2016,” a webinar sponsored by Washington State University Extension, the American Camp Association, Washington DNR, South Pend Oreille Fire Department and others, focused on steps that owners, managers and staff of recreational camps should take to prepare for the potential of wildfire. These principles are derived from the Watchout Situations used by wildland firefighters to continuously assess safety risks while in the field.

The S.P.O.T (Strategic Preparedness Online Training) session streamed online June 1 suggested the following “watchout” situations for summer campers, staff and visitors. See if any of these 13 potentially dangerous situations apply to you, your camp or a facility that you are visiting.

Camp Wildland Fire 13 “Watchout” Situations

  1. Your camp is located in the wildland urban interface, a fire adapted area, or areas close to your camp have burned in the past.
  2. Your camp does not have defensible space. Also your camp buildings and structures are not prepared to resist wildland fire ember storms.
  3. Your local fire department/DNR/ Emergency Medical Service has not visited your camp in the last year. They have not reviewed your emergency management plan and are not fully aware of the numbers of campers/staff and any special needs present each week of camp.
  4. You and your staff were not involved in the creation of your emergency management plan, have not reviewed the plan with key emergency response agencies, or you don’t have a current emergency plan. Also, your staff are not trained and have not been tested in emergency procedures and responses to various emergencies.
  5. Your camp emergency management plan has not been tested for evacuation procedures and protocols. This would mean a safe and full evacuation of all at camp.
  6. Your camp does not have adequate transportation resources to safely evacuate all campers, camp staff and personnel. (or a contract/agreement with local emergency management staff or a bus company for immediate evacuation)
  7. Your camp roads are not adequate for emergency vehicles and evacuation vehicles to easily enter or leave your camp.
  8. Your camp does not have specific staff identified to monitor fire conditions.
  9. You have horses and other animals that would need to be evacuated. Your camp lacks adequate transportation and an agreement for housing horses, livestock and other animals during a wildland fire.
  10. Your camp does not have procedures to contact parents in the event of an evacuation and a designated meeting location away from camp and potential wildland fires.
  11. Your camp offers trips that go into the back country, and your camp does not alert emergency response agencies of the camper/staff counts, their itinerary and any special needs.
  12. Your camp does not have good/reliable communications for emergencies at camp or outside of camp trips.
  13. Your camp records and information are only at camp (located in several buildings).

By Mike Jensen, Associate Professor/4-H Faculty and WSU State Camp Specialist, Washington State University Extension

What is “Firewise” and Why to Attend a Firewise Workshop

Spoiler alert on this article’s Part II: Why… Because workshops are FREE, extremely informative and in addition to learning about Firewise you will learn how to apply for cost-share opportunities that make implementing Firewise activities affordable and cost-effective for you. OK, back to the article…

Tree stand after Firewise treatment
Firewise communities reduce wildfire risks by thinning overgrown brush and tree stands as seen in this wildland-urban-interface location where slash is waiting to be chipped and dispersed. Photo: Steve McConnell/WSU.

Part I: What is Firewise

The Firewise Program has its origins in the 1985 fire season during which 1,400 homes were destroyed making fire managers acutely aware that the “wildland urban interface” where residences mix with undeveloped forest and open lands was an unavoidable reality of contemporary firefighting. It’s also a problem that it is national in scope; in other words, wherever there are forests. The term “Firewise” was coined in the early 1990s to identify the growing knowledge that landowners could use to reduce their fire risks. A website by this name was launched in 1997 by the National Fire Program Association.

Focused first on simply raising awareness of the potential for fires in semi-urban settings, Firewise program managers moved on quickly to the task of developing and providing information about the simple and practical techniques homeowners could use to reduce the risks of home destruction by wildfire.

The two greatest risks to homes during wildfires are: 1) Flammable roof, vulnerable to the embers thrown during a wildfire and, 2) Vegetation close to a house which can catch fire and generate enough heat or flames to ignite siding or other parts of the home’s structure.

Firewise went to work with this information to learn more about how structures burn and, in particular, what causes them to ignite. This led to the “International Crown Fire Experiments” of 1998 in the Northwest Territory. Scientists set large fires in, on and near structures of various types to obtain high quality data about how close vegetation could be to a structure yet not put that structure at risk of igniting from radiant heat. The three main takeaways from this research were that you can significantly reduce your fire risk by:

  • Clearing flammable trees and shrubs 30 feet or more from structures,
  • Making sure small flames in grass or shrubs cannot touch the home, and
  • Using nonflammable roof materials to minimize the damage that embers can cause.

With reliable, quantitative data in hand, Firewise and its partners disseminated information broadly with the primary message being “Your home CAN survive a wildfire.” Publications and videos are great tools but hands-on workshops put homeowners in direct contact with experts and enable attendees to ask specific questions about home materials, vegetation options and other factors that may affect their home’s survivability.

A playground in Mullen Hills Terrace, a Firewise community in Spokane County
A playground in Mullen Hills Terrace, a Firewise community in Spokane County, displays the results of proper wildfire risk reduction that still leaves adequate landscaping. Photo: Steve McConnell/WSU.

The interconnectedness of homes in the wildland urban interface – the neighbor with the row of arborvitae that abuts the side of your garage that abuts your house – quickly became apparent, and this led to the next big step – Firewise for Communities, not just individuals. The National Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program was begun in 2002 with a dozen pilot communities. A template was made for this voluntary program that allows for flexibility and respects the differences between communities. Training was provided to state forestry agencies to develop and assign state Firewise liaisons to help reach out to potential Firewise communities seeking to use the Firewise program template and become a designated Firewise Community. Today, there are more than 700 active Firewise communities in 40 states and the program is growing, we hope, at least as fast as the number of at-risk communities.

Part II: Why

Organizing a Firewise Community can be a challenging task as it is a voluntary program and requires the cooperation of homeowners who may have little in common except living in a defined geographic area and having a preference that their house not be engulfed by flames. Some Firewise communities are large gated communities on a hill and some are small trailer parks down by the river – the minimum requirement is two neighbors. In almost every occasion that a community is successfully formed, the work that made that happen began with one or two individuals who were spark plugs – people whose interest and energy inspired the rest of the community to join in.

There are some requirements for a community to get and retain recognition as being a Firewise Community, although there are many benefits as well, such as funds to implement an annual Firewise event, assistance from local and state experts in assessing and addressing specific risk factors, and cost-share funding to accomplish those goals. Currently the Washington State Department of Natural Resources seeks to increase Firewise communities in the state. New Firewise communities in eastern Washington may be eligible for some additional grant funds to conduct activities in their community. For more information contact Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, 360-902-1391 or megan.fitzgerald-mcgowan@dnr.wa.gov

Firewise workshops are designed to assist community “spark plugs” and provide them the technical information they need to make a compelling case for becoming Firewise, as well as provide a flexible tool kit they can use to encourage community involvement and match need to the community in which they live.

2014 Spokane-area Firewise Workshop
Participants in a 2014 Firewise workshop near Spokane take a field trip to a site being thinned to Firewise standards.

Firewise workshops provide a great overview to all homeowners of the technical aspects of protecting homes from wildfire. But where they excel is in providing a community perspective for assessing fire risk and discovering the most cost-effective ways to reduce that risk to acceptable levels. These programs also introduce attendees to Community Wildfire Protection Plans that have been prepared for almost every county in the state. These plans are rich with information about the historical prevalence of fire in any given area as well as the resources available to suppress fires. A review of past fires through wildland urban interface location is presented along with analyses of what went right, what did not and what could have been done differently. The analyses focus on the level of preparedness communities had had and how that preparedness factored in to fire outcome.

A new innovation to Firewise workshops in eastern Washington is a field tour for a first-hand look at situations that put communities at risk and the changes that were made as a result of a community becoming Firewise. In summary, Firewise programs provide YOU the tools you need to be effective. There is no time like the present to help your community as well as your home survive a fire. Attending a Firewise workshop is an excellent way to begin your journey towards that goal. And, as you may have heard… Firewise workshops are FREE and extremely informative. In addition to learning about the program, you will learn how to apply for cost-share opportunities that make implementing Firewise activities affordable and cost-effective for you.

Firewise zone concept
Firewise emphasizes creating zones with increasingly strict controls over vegetation the closer one gets to flammable structures. Image: Firewise.org

The next Firewise workshop scheduled in northeast Washington will be May 17 and 18 in the Spokane area. Keep an eye on the WSU Extension Forestry webpage for additional workshops around the state. In the meantime, take note that May 7 is Wildfire Community Preparedness Day.

By Steve McConnell , Forester, WSU Extension Program

Where to get more information: Firewise.org and Fire Adapted Communities

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

Fire Response and your Property

firefighting equipment  demonstration
Tom Schoenfelder (L), Washington Department of Natural Resources, and Dan Leavell (R), Oregon State University Extension, demonstrate firefighting equipment carried on DNR “engines” and explain the capabilities of fire crews in different firefighting scenarios at a joint WSU/OSU Fire Behavior Workshop, April 30, 2015, in southeast Washington. Photo: Steve McConnell/WSU Regional Extension

Fires are a fact of life in eastern Washington. For those of us living in forested areas it’s not a question of IF a fire will come but of WHEN and how damaging it will be when it does come. Washington Department of Natural Resources, WSU Extension, county fire districts, conservation districts, and dedicated “fire people” from across a spectrum of government agencies have promoted a “Firewise” program to landowners in forestlands or “WUI” (Wildland Urban Interface) locations. Firewise outlines specific steps that landowners can implement to protect their homes and forests against fire.

Washington state is blessed with professional, experienced, well-trained and dedicated firefighters who work well together between all the agencies involved. They work hard to protect resources and save lives. As a landowner, it is critical for you to know where fire services in your area are likely to come from. It also is important to understand that just because the fire station a mile away has robust firefighting capabilities for both wildland and structural fire, they may not be the entity that responds first. During fire season, fire engines are sometimes dispatched to other areas when there is a dire need for this equipment and there are no current local fires (some equipment and crews will ALWAYS be left to fight local outbreaks). In some cases, ­for example, an outbreak of multiple lightning strikes, local ­crews may not be able to get to every fire immediately and more distant resources may need to be called in.

joint WSU/OSU Fire Behavior Workshop
At an April 30, 2015, joint WSU/OSU Fire Behavior Workshop, Dan Leavell, Oregon State University– Klamath Basin Research and Extension Center, discusses fire behavior, fuel loading, fire prevention and forest restoration in an area burned heavily in the 2006 Columbia Complex Fire in the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington. Photo: Steve McConnell, WSU Regional Extension.

Landowners need to prepare for a bad- or worst-case fire scenario. Fire professionals repeatedly impart these key points for treating forest and vegetation around your home:

1) Create a “defensible space” – a 30-foot area that is free of any flammable vegetation large enough to, if burned, generate enough heat or flame to ignite your home;

2) Thin and prune forest stands to reduce tree density, remove “ladder fuels” and lift the crowns of trees left on site above the forest floor to reduce the chances of a ground fire moving into tree crowns; and

3) Remove dead vegetation from a 100-feet area around your house, paying particular attention to vegetation on the side of the house from which prevailing summer winds arrive.

Plan, design and layout your home and outbuildings to help firefighters help you protect your property against wildfire. The following actions are recommended:

  • Install good signage – something highly visible by day or night that clearly identifies your address. Reflective letters and numbers at least 4” high, placed on an easily viewed area at the head of your driveway are recommended.
  • Have at least two access roads (one can be a rough emergency only route but must be navigable in that emergency),
  • Maintain a driveway big enough for a firetruck, making sure road bed and any bridges can support the weight of a fire engine with a full load of water in it.
  • Maintain a turnaround area near structures on your property that is large enough for a firetruck to turn around in (generally a 50-foot radius).
  • Make sure your roof is made from non-flammable materials
  • Clean your rain gutters, cover vents and openings with wire mesh screens to keep out falling embers and make sure there is no flammable debris or firewood stored under decks or in areas abutting your house.
  • Maintain a water source on your property firefighters can tap into.

If you follow these guidelines, your house is significantly more likely to survive a fire than it otherwise would be. Importantly, preparing appropriately can give you an edge to cover the element of uncertainty when a fire arrives in your neighborhood – how big will the event be and how scarce or abundant will local firefighting resources be when you need them? Enjoy your forest property but enjoy it with full awareness of the fire-driven ecology of the area in which we live and the firefighting and emergency infrastructure available to us.

Find more information about Firewise

Check resources about building in wildland urban interface areas

Get more information about fire prevention assistance.

This article was based on a discussion at a “Fire Behavior Workshop” held in Dayton, Washington,on April 30, 2015. The contributions of presenters and resource professionals at this meeting included Paul Oester and Dan Leavell, OSU Extension; Rick Turner, Columbia County Fire District #3; Lisa Naylor, Blue Mountain RCDC; and Tom Schoenfelder, DNR, as well as the interested, knowledgeable and highly engaged workshop attendees who compelled and contributed to this discussion.

By Steve McConnell, regional WSU extension forestry specialist, smcconnell@spokanecounty.org