We should not take one-size-fits-all approach to Western Washington forest fires

US Forest Service teaches how to properly start and put out a campfire

Brian McCloud, a fire prevention technician for the US Forest Service, explains how to properly start and put out a campfire.
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Brian McCloud, a fire prevention technician for the US Forest Service, explains how to properly start and put out a campfire.

As wildfire responders are preparing for a bad wildfire season that could once again fill Washington state skies with smoke, it raises questions about local wildfire prevention.

Thinning forests and prescribed fires are a common approach to forest fire management east of the Cascades, but what about the forests on the west side of the Cascades? A single-prescribed approach to managing our forests has been unsuccessful in the past, and it is unlikely to work here in the Pacific Northwest. Fires can mean different things for different forests.

We will undoubtedly see more forest fires regionally as the effects of climate change continue to lead to drier summers and earlier snowmelt. This will be true for forests both east and west of the Cascades. But one size does not fit all when it comes to managing forests and fires.

A century or more of fire suppression in dry forests in the Intermountain West has led to “dog-hair thickets” of small trees. These trees create fuel ladders that allow ground fires to climb into tree canopies, which turn small beneficial fires into raging infernos that level beautiful forests – and your favorite cabin in the woods.

Across the Intermountain West, forest managers are working with fire. Thinning small trees alongside prescribed fires and managed wildfire are an accepted toolkit for restoring fire-adapted forests.

My annual field ecology class at The Evergreen State College has been conducting studies alongside active restoration fires in ponderosa pine forests of the Sinlahekin Valley in Okanogan County for 10 years. The quick, low-intensity fires safely move through the underbrush, and we have followed the fires, studying them. The reintroduced fires have promoted healthy-looking, large, old-growth pines, carpets of wildflowers, and a beautiful grass understory.

But our wetter temperate rainforests in Western Washington are often so moist and moss-covered that it seems like they wouldn’t burn if you wanted them to. Wetter forests are not necessarily used to regular low-intensity ground fires that burn through the understory, leaving the trees lightly touched.

The prevailing theory is that our wet forests typically grow thick until a long dry period — every 300 to 700 years — when widespread crown-fires ensue. Those fires might be large, patchy, and destructive. The 2017 Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge gave us an example. It leveled many forest stands, threatened historic structures, and caused a lot of damage, even while leaving some groves of trees surprisingly intact.

Should we thin our forests and make them fire-ready and avoid fires like the Eagle Creek Fire? Not so fast. Thinning in moist forests could open them up to light, dry them out, and rapid growth of shrubs and small trees could make perfect fuel ladders. We could unwittingly make big fires more likely. Consideration of these issues has led some ecologists to suggest that we need to embrace fire suppression over thinning and prescribed fire in wet west-side forests.

But I think we still have more to learn. Even though the theory says our wetter forests are prone to destructive crown fires, some recent examples don’t bear this out. A small forest fire on Evergreen’s campus last year produced very little damage. After eight months, it’s hard to tell that the forest even burned! There are similar examples from fires in the Olympic Mountains.

If our history with fires in the West has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t just rely on information from afar to make our decisions. We need local ecological knowledge and experiments. We need to observe our local forests before declaring they need restoration treatments or fire suppression. Actual wildfires might not match what we think we know based on other systems or past climates. We may need a new era of experimentation, where land managers can try different approaches to fire management experimentally, and then adapt accordingly.

We are entering a new era for fires in our region, especially with predicted climate changes. Learning more about how our forests deal with wildfire might just be the key to keeping them from going up in smoke.

Dylan Fischer is a professor of forest ecology at The Evergreen State College.