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