Fire is basic element of healthy ecosystem
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
UW professor talks fire benefits
Who: Jim Agee, professor emeritus of forest ecology at University of Washington
What: Presents “Fire in our Future: Sustaining Wildlands and Communities.”
When: 7 p.m. May 18
Where: Okanogan Grange Hall, 305 Tyee St., Okanogan
Sponsors: Okanogan Valley Land Council, Okanogan Conservation District, Colville Confederated Tribes
Benefits of fire
• Reduces fuels, resulting in less severe and more easily controlled fires.
• Creates smoke which increases germination of many species.
• Creates charcoal which enhances water retention in soil and inhibits germination of certain weeds.
• Releases nutrients tied up in dead vegetation.
• Reduces abundance and density of vegetation that requires lots of water.
• Naturally thins trees, making those remaining more resistant to insects and disease.
• Maintains a diversity of plants because different parts of the forest burn at different times.
• Changes the acidity of the soil to favor species dominant in a fire-dependent ecosystem.
• Creates heat which is needed for germination of some species, such as ceanothus, an important winter food for deer.
• Creates re-growth of shrubs that are preferred by deer and elk.
• Creates open areas preferred by mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
• Kills plant and animal parasites and diseases.
Source: Dale Swedberg, manager of Sinlahekin Wildlife Area and member of the North Central Washington Prescribed Fire Council
LOOMIS — Dale Swedberg surveys the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area and sees a completely different landscape. What once appeared teeming with life, now seems choked and overstocked.
To Swedberg’s eyes, the hundreds of species of plants and animals in the state’s oldest wildlife preserve are missing one basic element: fire.
“It’s a fire-dependent system, and without fire, it becomes a dysfunctional system,” he said a few weeks ago, on a hike near Reflection Pond through part of the wildlife area, south of Loomis. Swedberg’s managed this 14,300-acre piece for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife since 1997.
For the past 100 years, people have put out every fire on this land, first set aside in 1938 for mule deer habitat. But without fire, that deer habitat and everything else is suffering, he said.
“It is not good for wildlife, or the plant communities,” he said. “We’ve come close to turning the whole system upside down on its head.”
Swedberg is working to change that. He won a $75,000 grant from the Washington State Recreation and Conservation office and Natural Resources Conservation Service to begin thinning and burning 2,000 acres of this wildlife preserve. And he’s applying for other grants to bring fire back to the rest of the wildlife area.
Jim Agee, a well-known University of Washington professor, will talk about the vital need for fire in a free lecture May 18.
Swedberg first became interested in using prescribed fire on the wildlife preserve after visiting the Rocky Hull Fire between Oroville and Tonasket a decade ago. “I don’t know what prompted me to go and look at the conditions after the fire, but I was just really enthralled with what I was seeing,” he said.
He began attending informational meetings that the Tonasket Ranger District held on use of prescribed fire, and later helped found the North Central Washington Prescribed Fire Council, which he currently chairs.
Then he learned about the fire history work Richard Schellhaas had done through his private consulting business, Schellhaas Consultants in Wenatchee.
Last year, Schellhaas and his crew gathered data to determine current and historical tree stand density in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area.
The report shows there are about 10 times as many trees now as there were 100 years ago, when man started excluding fire.
The consultants are now gathering dozens, if not hundreds, of cross-cut samples from both live and dead trees with fire scars, tracking their location with GPS, and determining how often fire used to sweep through this narrow glacial valley banked by foothills and ponderosa pine forests.
Swedberg will use the results to convince others that fire is a necessary — and missing — component of managing these lands.
For example, he said, ash produces soil conditions that favor plants that use less water.
Swedberg said wildfire plays a vital role in how much water is used and how much is retained in the soil.
He pointed to Mill Creek, in the Entiat Valley, which Swedberg said was large enough to power a sawmill in the late 1800s. That was before man started putting out fires in the area.
After decades of extinguishing wildfires, it became an intermittent creek and was no longer a permanent stream, he said.
In 1994, the Tyee Fire swept through the area. “Now, it’s a perennial stream with fish in it,” Swedberg said.
There are also benefits from charcoal, which releases chemicals that favor plants that use less water, and prevents certain noxious weeds from growing.
And, he said, many plants — like a popular winter food for deer called ceanothus — need fire for their seeds to be released or germinated.
Swedberg said his efforts to bring fire back to this ecosystem have not been welcomed by all.
“It’s kind of like reintroducing wolves,” he said. “Fire is something we’ve been taught to fear and loathe.”
Smoke is probably the biggest issue. But proponents of prescribed fire say if we don’t accept controlled burning, we’d better be prepared for more wildfires.
“Smokey Bear has pretty much brainwashed all of us with this unrealistic expectation that fire can be controlled, or can be suppressed,” he said. “It’s either mild fire or wild fire. And when we get a wildfire, we can have it for months.”
It’s not just the general public that resists, he said. Swedberg has been frustrated to find that most conservation groups dedicated to preserving wildlife are not willing to spend any of their funds on projects that bring back fire to fire-dependent environments, even if they recognize the benefits of fire.
Despite obstacles, Swedberg will continue to push for a constant regime of fire in this wildlife area.
Eventually, he hopes to thin and burn the rest of the wildlife area, and maintain its health by burning out the undergrowth every three to five years.
“This is something I feel is fundamental to the future management of this wildlife area,” he said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512
MORE LIKE THIS
Wednesday, May 22
WVC Hepcats Swing Dance Classes
Wenatchee Valley Senior Activity Center, 7 p.m.
Thursday, May 23
BNI Better Business Boosters
Rivertop Bar & Grill, 201 N. Wenatchee Ave., 7:30 a.m.
Thursday, May 23
BNI High Noon Achievers
Red Lion Hotel, noon
Thursday, May 23
S.T.Y.L.E. Boot Camp!
Wenatchee Valley Mall, space A-4, 6:30 p.m.