WINTHROP, Wash. — Snow blankets the landscape in north central Washington. What you can’t see is the scorched earth left from last summer’s Carlton Complex fire.
Even through the snow, Susan Prichard, a fire ecologist for the University of Washington, can see the damage. She can also see signs of recovery in the bitterbrush and aspen trees.
“Aspen, and cottonwood and willow species are all very fire adapted and disturbance adapted in that they’re sprouters,” Prichard said. “We’ve already seen, even in the fall following the Carlton Complex fire, just amazing sprouting by the aspen in particular.”
Although these aspen trees are resprouting, the fire last summer damaged other areas far more severely.
The Carlton Complex fire burned more than a quarter million acres — most of it in less than two days, as 30 mile-per-hour winds pushed hot smoke and embers through Okanogan County. Fire swept across shrublands and blazed through forests.
Prichard was driving from Seattle to her home in Winthrop just as the fire picked up.
“I saw the plume of smoke, and I felt the wind,” Prichard said. “At that moment, I hadn’t even possibly considered that the fire could possibly race all the way down to the Columbia River.”
All she could think about was the town of Pateros, right in the path of the firestorm. More than 300 homes were destroyed in the Carlton Complex.
The progression of the Carlton Complex wildfire. Credit: Joseph Liu/KCTS9
Prichard said it could take half a century or more for this area to recover. But there are ways to slow future wildfires.
“We know fire is going to re-occur. These are fire-dependent ecosystems,” she said. “It’s not a question about if fire is going to return but how it’s going to return and how much it’s going to burn and how much it’s going to allow to survive.”
Thinning Forests To Reduce Fuel
Outside of Yakima, The Nature Conservancy is thinning forests that have not yet seen snowfall this year. Crews create gaps in the dense forest by cutting down smaller trees.
Scraps of thinned trees have been piled and dried for more than a year. Now it’s time to set them on fire.
That’s Matt Dahlgreen’s job. He’s worked to thin these forests for most of his career.
“You just go to the bottom side of the pile and try to find a dry area and light it,” Dahlgreen said, pointing to a brush pile.
Thinning forests reduces the amount of fuel. This could help prevent explosive wildfires.
“We are trying to concentrate the growth on a few trees, so these few trees will get large and become more fire resistant and better wildlife habitat over time,” Dahlgreen said.
Reese Lolley, the Eastern Washington forest program director for The Nature Conservancy, said the emphasis on fire suppression in the last century helped create the conditions that have lead to more extreme fires.
“The current condition of our forests, with trees that are smaller and at a higher density, creates situations where now the forest is less resilient,” Lolley said.
Lolley said some fires actually need to burn. Smaller wildfires reduce fire fuel and ultimately create habitat and help regenerate trees.
“These forests were born in fire and as we move into a changing climate, we’re going to see more and more fire,” Lolley said.
A Force Of Nature, Not An Enemy
That’s because the Northwest is expected to have warmer, drier, longer summers.
Dave Peterson, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, studies the relationship between wildfires and climate change.
“Fire is not necessarily an enemy, but it is is a force of nature that we can live with if we plan for it,” Peterson said.
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Since the 1970s, large wildfires are burning across the U.S. seven times more often. In the coming decades, researchers expect that frequent megafires will become the norm.
“We’re going to have fires,” Peterson said. “We just cannot stop fires, but we can reduce their intensity.”
Researchers want to know just how much thinning and controlled burns actually reduce that intensity.
Morris Johnson, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, analyzes landscapes after wildfires strike. He tries to measure the effectiveness of forest thinning and prescribed burns.
Johnson pulls up a photo on his computer from the 2011 Wallow Fire, the biggest in Arizona’s recorded history. He said the photo clearly shows how thinned forests helped stop a fire before it reached homes.
“You can see as it hit the thinning treatment there’s a transition in the fire type,” Johnson said. “It went from an active crown fire down to a passive crown fire, and then … it allowed the firefighters to basically protect these homes by doing spot protection.”
A peer-reviewed study by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service recently found this type of work needs to happen on 9.5 million acres of forest in Washington and Oregon.
Because the Carlton Complex was so extreme, almost half of the previously thinned areas burned completely. But in some critical areas, researchers found thinning did make a difference. One of those areas is known as the “doughnut hole,” a 12,000-acre patch of land untouched in the center of this summers’ burned landscape.
Meg Trebon, a fire management officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, saw firsthand how the treated areas within the “doughnut hole” slowed down the Carlton Complex fire, giving firefighters a safer place from which to fight the flames.
But in other areas the fire had already grown so intense, she said, that previous forest treatments made little difference.
“This fire — once it got going — I don’t know what could have stopped it,” Trebon said.
Back near Yakima, Reese Lolley is hoping the work The Nature Conservancy is doing will keep wildfires from completely devastating this area someday.
“We need to think differently on how we’re managing these forests moving into the next century, and how we can live with fire in a way that can benefit forests, benefit people, water, and wildlife,” Lolley said.
For now, that means more thinning and controlled burns, and more work to be done.