Fire is just part of life here

Fire is just part of life here

26 September 2012

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USA – It is tempting to view the wildfires we are experiencing throughout North Central Washington as a collection of nasty problems to be endured. Wildfires are enormously disruptive, as we have seen during the last few weeks. Our concerns are driven by the threat to homes and property, the inconvenience and health risks associated with breathing smoke for days on end, and the economic impact that is suffered because shoppers stay indoors and retail sales stores suffer.

Our short-term angst makes it difficult to appreciate the ways in which these fires improve the health of our forests and revitalize the landscape for wildlife. We forget that fire is an essential aspect of where we live and that these occasional burns serve a necessary ecological role.

It is no secret that we are faced with daunting forest health issues because of decades of aggressive firefighting that has led to a buildup of fuels in the woods. Destructive pests have added to the problem. One need only drive over Blewett Pass to be reminded of this. We need fire to occasionally burn the excess fuels, but of course when the forests are unhealthy the risk of intensely hot fires that wipe out the vegetation is of great concern.

There is a lot of firefighting left to be done before our current fire situation comes to a close. Likely, we’ll still be seeing smoke from some fires until the snow flies. It is amazing that damage to private property has been minimal, thanks in part to the inversion that has choked our valley in smoke but kept the fire from spreading rapidly.

Other factors have surely helped. The Forest Service has over the past few decades done a lot of prescribed burning in areas of the Peavine Fire and also near Beehive. Wenatchee National Forest Supervisor Becky Health told me that there were preliminary indications that the areas treated were more resilient. More efforts could have been made but for overly stringent state air quality standards, which begs the question of what is worse — some light smoke from a prescribed burn versus two weeks of choking smoke from the fire? Personally, I’m for loosening the standards to cut down on the risks of catastrophic fire.

Cleaning up the mess and determining the extent of rehabilitation will start in earnest when the fires no longer pose a significant threat. The danger is diminished, but not extinguished.

The charred landscape will be rehabilitated. Some of this will happen because of human intervention, but nature will have much more to do with the regeneration of the landscape. These aren’t the first fires and certainly won’t be the last.

The hills behind Wenatchee will likely recovery quickly, according to Dave Volsen of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As long as the fire was of low intensity, and in the Sage Hills that appears to be the case, the vegetation that supports critical mule deer habitat will recover quickly. The fire releases nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil and spurs that new growth, Volsen said. With the right type of moisture this fall, the recovery could be “absolutely incredible,” said Volsen

During the fires, there was the feeling that “Armageddon has come,” said Volsen. “Now that the smoke has cleared,” he added, “we’ll probably see some real (wildlife) benefit over time.”

Much as the fire annoys and frightens us, it is part of life here.




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