Managed forests survive fires better, forester says

Managed forests survive fires better, forester says

02 October 2012

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USA– As the area moves forward in the recovery process from the Region 23 Complex and Wellnitz fires, foresters are encouraging more people to take a long, hard look at doing more to manage the forests on their land.

“I think what this fire season showed us is how a managed forest reacts compared to an unmanaged forest,” said state forester Doak Nickerson.

The three large fires that scorched 165,000 acres of the northern Panhandle in three counties in late August and early September burned mostly on unmanaged forest. The fuel load in those unmanaged regions allowed the fires to rage out of control in places, Nickerson said.

When there are too many trees, combined with conditions such as this year’s drought, “the fires are going to be ones that more than likely you won’t appreciate the end result.”

Ponderosa forests like those found on the Pine Ridge can withstand fires well if the fires remain largely on the ground instead of running through the tree tops.

“Through management, not if the fire comes, but when it comes, we can create a forest that’s going to dictate what kind of fire we have to deal with,” Nickerson said. Ground fires, as compared to running crown fires, are not as devastating or as volatile and are less dangerous for firefighters. “We will have dead trees in those managed tracts, but we won’t have the entire forest dead.”

Efforts to manage the forest at Chadron State Park have been ongoing for about 20 years, Nickerson said.

“That’s a living laboratory of how we need to manage this Ponderosa pine.”

When the West Ash Creek Fire hit Chadron State Park, the blaze stayed mainly on the ground. While the fire crowned in a few individual trees, there were no sustained running crown fires because the trees are spaced out enough that the fire cannot feed itself in the forest canopy.

“It ran out of energy in the canopy of the forest, and it dropped back to the ground. This works,” Nickerson said.

That played in to protecting structures in and near Chadron State Park as well, he said. There are a lot of homes and other structures in that area.

“If we had not done what we did … we’d be talking about structure loss today. And it would have been a lot.”

Nickerson said he knows there are some private structures that were protected because of forest management as well.

In a fire such as those that burned in Dawes, Sioux and Sheridan counties this summer, fire behavior is dictated by whether the forest is unmanaged or managed.

“The fire behavior I saw this year eclipsed anything I saw in 2006,” Nickerson said. Night time generally allows firefighters to make progress in their efforts, but fire behavior in the overnight hours on the Region 23 and Wellnitz fires was similar to daytime behavior.

“That’s bad when your fire doesn’t know the difference between day and night. It still runs chills down my back,” he said.

When the west flank of the West Ash Creek Fire broke out in the overnight, early morning hours of Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, Nickerson saw running crown fires headed downhill. “That’s unheard of,” he said, explaining that fire runs harder and faster uphill. He also saw lateral gas explosions above the forest after the blaze had depleted all of the foliage and needed to recharge itself.

That unusual behavior was caused by a combination of bad weather conditions and unmanaged forest land.

At Chadron State Park, the work to manage the forest began with logging the entire park and selling enough wood to sawmills to construct 200 homes; all of that wood would have been fuel had it been left standing, Nickerson said. The logging created the park’s road system – paid for by forest product – and that road system is now used for trails and firefighter access.

Once the logging was complete, the forest was still too thick, so a thinning program was instituted. All of the smaller, defective and diseased trees were removed, and residue from both the logging and the thinning projects was chipped and used to fuel Chadron State College’s boiler.

“That’s the model we’re using now on private land. We’re getting some interest,” Nickerson said. The Region 23 and Wellnitz fires impacted more private land than the 2006 fires did, prompting the uptick in interest of managing the forests.

While the logging markets have softened recently, there are still options for private landowners, and the Nebraska Forest Service can help connect interested individuals with logging companies. There is also a cost-share program available that will offset at least 50 percent of the cost of managing the forest.

Managing the forest not only will prevent total devastation in the event of a fire, but also means fewer problems with erosion and wildlife impacts after the fire. A black forest has little wildlife and produces a lot of ash and silt that causes stream damage, lets water wash out roads and silts in culverts.

“There is not a lot you can do with a black forest, but there are a lot of options for you in your green forest,” Nickerson said.

Once logging and thinning is complete, additional steps, including prescribed burns and grazing, continue to improve the managed forest.

Prescribed burns, using a solid road system as anchor points, decreases fuel load in a controlled fashion at desired times. Grazing is key because once the forest stands are opened up through logging and thinning, a lot of grass grows in the understory. That serves as additional fuel that can increase flame lengths during a fire.

“We need to graze this grass and keep our fuel loads down. Grazing is a really important tool.”



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