A growing number of land managers have a burning desire to improve forest health and wildlife habitat.
The topic of prescribed fires is hotter than ever following last summer’s major fires near Cle Elum and Wenatchee.
That’s good news for rural communities, hunters and wildlife.
Setting fires to help manage range and forests is an ancient concept. If lightning wasn’t doing the job, Native Americans often set fires for clearing travel routes as well as rejuvenating vegetation for better harvests and more forage for their horses and the wildlife they consumed.
Suppressing fires to protect private property and commercial timber stands became the law of the land after the 1910 blowup of forest fires in the West.
Ironically, that decade of fires set the stage for the boom in elk populations in portions of the Bitterroot Mountains that lasted through the ‘60s.
But as further fires were suppressed, the potential for catastrophic fires increased. Wildlife habitat deteriorated. Elk herds in many areas were declining before wolves were reintroduced into the equation.
Logging mimics the good qualities of a burn to some degree, but it cannot replace nature’s dependence on fire.
The Forest Service and other land managers have been trying to make up the difference with controlled burns.
Colville National Forest officials say they burn as many acres as possible in spring and late fall given the constraints of funding, weather, political tolerance for risk and smoke and the narrow window of prime conditions for safely torching underbrush and dog-hair stands.
Since 1987, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has promoted prescribed burns to boost wildlife habitat in 22 states.
In Washington alone, the group has chipped in $450,000 to help fund 99 projects involving prescribed burning. More than 43,000 acres were treated in those projects on federal and state lands including the Colville, Gifford-Pinchot, Olympic, Umatilla and Wenatchee national forests and several state wildlife areas.
A $6,800 trailer dedicated to hauling prescribed burning equipment was donated to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife this year by the Mule Deer Foundation.