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The importance of fire

Posted by Renee Magyar on April 20, 2016

Fire plays a vital role in restoring and maintaining healthy forests

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Prescribed burn operations on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Photo by: Wallowa-Whitman National Forest

Spring is here, and that means on national forests across the West, forest managers are busy preparing for early season restoration work. While the forests are still relatively wet from winter snow, forest managers use controlled fire (or prescribed fire) to reduce overstocked fuel loads, enhance wildlife habitat, and set up the landscape to be more resilient against wildfire and other disturbance factors. Prescribed fire is one of the most effective tools we have for preventing damage from intense wildfires, and is a critical treatment method to restore forest resiliency.

Fire has existed in the Blue Mountains for millenia – long before Europeans arrived. Lightning fires, and those started by Native Americans, played a vital role in the ecosystem. Frequent low-intensity fires burned accumulated fuel and naturally thinned dry forests. However, over the past century we have actively suppressed wildfires to protect public and private property and prevent what was considered destruction of our national forests. In fact, we have been so effective in suppressing wildfire that dry forests have become overcrowded with close-canopied forest stands with understories dominated by small young trees. Fire suppression has also led to conifers spreading into aspen stands and historically non-forested areas, reducing habitat diversity for native species. The dense condition of the forests, combined with drought in recent years, has contributed to a record number of wildfires, and has left forests vulnerable to uncharacteristic fire, insect, and disease outbreaks. Essentially, attempting to exclude fire has made wildfires worse. 

The use of fire is a critical management tool of the Forest Resiliency Project. If we want to make a difference in restoring forest health, we need to recognize and appreciate the role of fire at a large scale, and find ways to put more fire back on the landscape. 

Utilizing prescribed fire to maintain or restore fire-adapted ecosystems, control some invasive species, and reduce hazardous fuels is one way to make this reintroduction. Prescribed fire returns the beneficial effects of fire to an ecosystem, producing native vegetation, fire-resilient landscapes, and reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire caused by excessive fuel buildup. Prescribed burning allows managers to choose weather conditions that are right for a safe, effective fire, thus reducing the potential for fires to occur during the driest times of year when they are more difficult and dangerous to manage. By safely removing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, encouraging the new growth of native vegetation, and maintaining the habitat of many plant and animal species that depend on periodic fire, prescribed burning helps reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire on national forest lands and surrounding lands. Prescribed burning is also a relatively inexpensive method to reduce hazardous fuel loads and can be used to treat areas that are otherwise inaccessible or too expensive for mechanical treatment (these treatments can range from using chainsaws and rakes, to large machines like bulldozers and wood chippers to thin dense stands of trees and make an area better able to withstand fire). 

Prescribed burn operations on the Ochoco National Forest. Photo by: Ochoco National Forest
Prescribed burn operations on the Ochoco National Forest. Photo by: Ochoco National Forest

Wildfire is anticipated to become a more important forest restoration tool in the near future. Climate projections show that our current upward trend in wildfires in the Blue Mountains will continue, so we know we are going to have more wildfire on the landscape. What we don’t know is what kind of fires we will have, under what conditions, and with what kind of results. How can we set up our national forests to be more resilient to wildfire under mid-summer conditions? 

The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team is using fire behavior and transmission models to determine where fire presents the greatest risk to important resources like private lands, campgrounds, administrative sites, and fire-sensitive areas.  By looking at how fire is predicted to behave across the landscape, the team can develop strategic fuel treatments that provide fire managers more options for managing inevitable wildfires – protecting high value assets like private land and public and private structures, and setting up the landscape to accept fire. 

Photo by US Forest Service Staff
Photo by US Forest Service Staff

During a wildfire, fire managers often need to build fuel breaks to stop a fire, often in a hurry based on choices that are limited by the progress and intensity of the fire. The Forest Resiliency Project will design treatments that take a more strategic approach, providing land managers with more opportunities to use fire, both planned and unplanned, to restore and maintain landscapes in an ecologically sound manner. Additionally, these strategic fuel treatments can give fire managers more time and space for making decisions on where to contain a wildfire, increasing both firefighter and public safety.

While the Forest Resiliency Project intentionally plans restoration activities across a large landscape, the Forest Service can’t achieve these goals alone. By working closely with efforts like the Cohesive Wildfire Strategy (which focuses on restoring and maintaining landscapes, effective and efficient wildfire response and creating fire-adapted communities) we can make significant strides in restoring forest health, benefiting both the national forest lands and adjacent private lands. 

Fire is really what the Forest Resiliency Project is all about – preparing our national forest landscapes so that we can better manage with fire, instead of against fire. By thoughtfully planning and implementing thinning and prescribed fire now, we are facilitating the role of fire as a restoration tool – one that can be used in a safer, less expensive, and less damaging manner than is currently possible.  

Interested in what others are saying about this project? The Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy recently completed a scoping period for the Forest Resiliency Project. All comments received can be read in the public reading room. Additionally, you can find notes from the public engagement sessions on the project public engagement website

This is the fourth of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.