RESILIENCE & RECOVERY IN THE METHOW VALLEY
PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE REBUILDING PROGRESS ENVIRONMENTAL RESPONSES
A supplement to the Methow Valley News
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509 997-7011 www.methowvalleynews.com PO Box 97 Twisp, WA 98856 Photo by Dana Sphar
The Methow Valley is coming to terms with the effects of major fires . Photo by Steve Mitchell
ABOUT Living With Fire
N December 2014, we published Trial by Fire, a 100-page, magazinestyle special issue that chronicled the Carlton Complex Fire and its effects on our lives and the environment in the Methow Valley. We looked at the economic, ecological and emotional impacts the fire had on our community, with a lot of help from local contributors. The publication was widely successful — we printed 10,000 copies and have only a few left. We thought — hoped — that would be the definitive chronicling of the valley’s encounters with massively destructive wildfires. August 2015 changed all that. The Twisp River Fire claimed the lives of three firefighters, and severely burned a fourth firefighter who is still recovering. Once again the valley — and more broadly, all of Okanogan County — was dealing with the horrific consequences of seemingly uncontrollable events. By late 2015, we were contemplating a follow-up publication to Trial by
Fire — this time focusing on rebuilding, recovery and response. Circumstances and events affected our planning for and conception of a second publication, and eventually it made the most sense to aim for the end of 2016. Living With Fire: Resilience and Recovery in the Methow Valley is the result. Our focus is on recovery, rebuilding and community preparedness. We explore the effects of major fires on our surroundings with a forward-looking perspective. We want to help local residents and other people who care about the Methow Valley understand what has happened, how the community has responded, and what is being done to better prepare us for natural disasters. Topics in Living With Fire include economic implications, environmental impacts, community efforts such as Firewise planning and Methow Ready, forest and landscape restoration, rebuilding destroyed and damaged properties, the importance of volunteers in the recovery effort, firefighting
approaches and funding, emergency notification systems, prescribed burning, flooding, mudslides and other issues. Living With Fire was made possible by a generous grant from the Moccasin Lake Foundation, created by Jim and Gaye Pigott. Their love for this community is exemplified by their support for the publication, and we are grateful for it beyond words. We also appreciate the support of our advertisers, who invest in this community in many ways. Once again, the Methow Valley News staff — with the help of other local resources and freelance writers and photographers — put in an extraordinary amount of effort to make sure Living With Fire reads well and looks good. Living With Fire is being distributed for free. Contact the News office at (509) 997-7011 or email frontdesk@ methowvalleynews.com for information about how to get copies. Don Nelson Publisher/Editor • 3 •
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About Living With Fire Finding our own way
The Methow Valley moves forward with a strong sense of resolve
A new model for long-term recovery
Methow Valley organizations and community leaders are unified behind a multi-layered plan for preparedness and response to natural disasters
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Fighting fire with fire
The history of Methow Valley wildfires points to prescribed burns, thinning as smart responses
USFS project aims to manage forests for more resiliency against fires and climate change
A prescription for healthy forests
Prescribed burns can help prevent catastrophic wildfires
Where the wildfires really are
Most of the acreage burned in 2014 and 2015 was in shrub-steppe or grassland areas — not forests
Above, this photo of the Marracci home in the Upper Beaver Creek area was taken shortly before that area was inundated by fire in 2014. The landscape around the house was charred as the fire moved through. This is the photo that was featured on the cover of the precursor to this magazine, called Trial By Fire, which was published in 2014 after the Carlton Complex Fire. Photo by Jack Kienast Right, a photo of the same home a year later. Though the landscape was already recovering at that time, it is clear that it has changed. The family, along with the entire Methow Valley, is still learning about living with fire. Photo by Marcy Stamper
Resiliency at risk
A forest-saving mission
Legislative efforts produced mixed results
Looking for a home on the range
An economy of scale
Better connections during emergencies
The link between morels and wildfires
From 2014 to now: a timeline
Fires, floods and fish
Climate change and ‘megafires’ are longterm threats to valley’s ecosystem USFS project proposes new strategy for Libby and Buttermilk areas to decrease wildfire risks
Local, state and federal officials look for ways to deal with megafires
The county’s upgraded communications system will benefit first responders, 911 calls
No longer powerless
Twisp has acquired four generators to keep emergency services, communication going
Battling the beetle invasion
Forest Service study looks at bark beetle infestations in wake of Carlton Complex Fire
Methow Valley cattle ranchers lost stock and grazing lands to fire, but are recovering with state and Forest Service help
Popular mushrooms seem to proliferate in burned areas
Our native species are remarkably adaptable to natural catastrophes
Targeted economic development efforts can take advantage of the Methow’s natural and human resources A look at major events and developments over the past three years of dealing with fires and their consequences
The valley’s Firewise communities are aggressively working to make their properties safer from wildfire
Contributors DON NELSON
is publisher and editor of the Methow Valley News.
is a Methow Valley News reporter.
is a Methow Valley News reporter.
is a Methow Valley News columnist.
K EN BEVIS
is a contributing writer.
is a contributing writer.
is a contributing writer.
is a contributing writer.
is a contributing writer.
Don Nelson | PUBLISHER/EDITOR
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Helping nature along
How one landowner went about restoring burned habitat around his home
Back in business
Yogi Martin and Robin Baire had to rebuild not only their home but also Robin’s small company
Successive fires have been hard on Brian Varrelman’s horses and businesses
Volunteers, contributions and an SBA loan helped Buddy Thomas rebuild his Finley Canyon home
Recovering along with the land
Help from all over
McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch lost buildings to fire but kept the business going
Don and Pat Owens lost their home to the Carlton Complex Fire, but rebuilt with determination
Hundreds of volunteers contributed thousands of hours rebuilding homes lost to fires
Darla Hussey | DESIGN Rebecca Walker | OFFICE MANAGER Tyson Kellie | ADVERTISING ASSOCIATE Sheila Ward | ADVERTISING ASSOCIATE Dana Sphar | AD DESIGN/PRODUCTION A publication of the Methow Valley News P.O. Box 97, 502 S. Glover St., Twisp, WA 98856 509.997.7011 • fax 509.997.3277 www.methowvalleynews.com email@example.com
Cover photo by Mary Kiesau
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Finding our oWn Way The Methow Valley moves forward with a strong sense of resolve BY DON NELSON
E are forever changed. Turning that into a positive is the story behind Living With Fire: Resilience and Recovery in the Methow Valley. The Methow Valley fires of 2014 and 2015 were not just destructive and deadly. They took a toll on the collective community psyche. I’ve previously described the death of three firefighters in the Twisp River Fire of August 2015 as an emotional gut punch. Our despair over devastating property and environmental losses was, in a heartbeat, utterly eclipsed by profound grief. Fire scorched our landscape, and then seared our souls. We can put up new buildings. Nature will recover. Human loss is irreparable. But every time we were driven to our knees, we got up and kept moving forward. The Methow Valley’s unfailingly generous community spirit, our history of helping each other through challenges, our irrepressible energy, our long-term commitment to this place and to each other — all inherent genes of the valley’s DNA — keep us pointed to the future while acknowledging the past. The fingers-crossed summer of 2016 came and went without serious incident, but our memories remain sharp. The two previous summers of assault by fire have made us more aware, and wary. We watch the skies for smoke plumes, wonder what the sirens are all about whenever we hear them, trade information about even the smallest brush fires, pay more attention to weather conditions, make preparations for the next time. All of which means that we are, in the best sense, becoming more proactive than reactive as a community. Anticipation and preparation are the watchwords: We won’t be caught offguard again. Part of that forward-looking mind-set is acknowledging what’s being called the “new normal.” Climate change isn’t a new thing, but we are now seeing the blunt-force trauma of
its effects. Forest management is not a new issue either, but now we are critically assessing whether, and how, we should do things differently — perhaps radically so. Firewise has been around for a while, but now it’s a common part of our vocabulary and, increasingly, how we live. Most of the Methow Valley’s residents, part-timers and advocates understand that the “old normal” will never return. There’s a substantive difference between accepting that and adapting to it. Adapting takes a lot of intentional effort. In this publication, you’ll learn what that looks like from a variety of angles — housing needs, the local economy, overall preparedness, environmental responses, forest practices, and emergency response planning and communication among them. You’ll also find some personal stories of recovery and rebuilding that exemplify the valley’s strong sense of self-determination. It will be largely up to us to sustain the momentum of recovery, response and readiness. State and federal support may help. Policy changes at the large-agency level may also make a difference. For the most part, it will require a continuous local effort of working, pushing, innovating and advocating from the ground up. Maybe, instead of a grass roots movement, we could call it a shrub-steppe movement. The summer of 2014 overwhelmed us. The summer of 2015 stunned us. The summer of 2016 kept us on edge. Every summer from now on will add to our story in a different way. We can’t predict or impose expectations on what may happen. But because we are forever changed in positive ways, we will have a meaningful role in determining our destiny. Our most important local investment will be embracing the “long-term” part of long-term recovery. That’s a daunting community challenge, not because it’s unrealistic or unattainable, but because it will require so much of us over time. What holds us together are optimism and our common belief that the commitment is worth it.
Adapting to a fire-damaged landscape is one of the valley’s challenges . Photo by Mary Kiesau
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a neW modeL For Long-term recovery Methow Valley organizations and community leaders are unified behind a multi-layered plan for preparedness and response to natural disasters BY J A SON PAUL SEN
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NE of the things I really value about our Methow community is the “can-do” attitude
we bring to challenges. We like to benefit from the lessons of others, but we like to do things our own way, getting “out of the box,” as they say. Such has been the experience I
have shared with a diverse group of community advocates who all stepped up in the middle of the Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014 to embark on the bland-sounding adventure we call Long Term Recovery. I’m proud to report that over two years of work is now being recognized across the state and nation as a new model for rural disaster recovery. That adventure started in a hot and power-outage-darkened conference room at TwispWorks where local disaster management professional (and folk singer) Hank Cramer used his booming
voice to drown out the endless thump of helicopters overhead to school us on the importance of working immediately to make our community a stronger, more resilient place. Hank urged us to abandon our desires to be “responders,” and instead to let the fire and disaster professionals do their work while we turned our focus toward the future. “Start now to make this a better, stronger community five, 10 and 15 years from now,” Hank advised. We listened, and in that one stern lecture, Methow Valley Long Term
Recovery (MVLTR) was born. Board members representing local business, social services, volunteer groups, agriculture and conservation, public utilities, emergency medical services and public safety set forth to gather our peers in discussions around the “gaps and needs” we were experiencing, and how we might take steps to be better prepared for whatever might come in the future. Thanks to very generous donors in our community, Methow Valley Long Term Recovery and its partners have been able to move forward in making our community a more resilient place in a number of important ways. Some of this work has been visible, and some less so. But all of it is important, drawing upon the lessons we learned in 2014 and in 2015. Here are some of the ways our community is better prepared for whatever comes next:
METHOW READY — INDIVIDUAL AND NEIGHBORHOOD PREPAREDNESS Methow Valley Long Term Recovery created and branded an individual and neighborhood preparedness campaign we call MethowReady, and we’ve trained over 100 neighborhood leaders in a program aimed at organizing our community at the neighborhood level. The summers of 2014 and 2015 taught us that there is nothing more important during a period of real disaster than our neighbors. More neighborhood leader trainings are being planned for spring 2017, and we look forward to convening existing neighborhood leaders to share the lessons they have learned. Our local emergency professionals continue to tell us that individual, family and neighborhood preparedness is the most important ingredient in a successful disaster response. We each can support our community by taking responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors.
METHOW VALLEY EMERGENCY PLAN Thanks to leadership from
Methow Valley Long Term Recovery board members Cindy Button of Aero Methow Rescue Service and David Gottula of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC), as well as OCEC staff member Deanna Melton, a new emergency plan for the Methow Valley has been developed as a resource for future disaster events. In addition to developing this new plan, over 85 community leaders, government officials, agencies and faith-based groups gathered in the Winthrop Barn this spring to test the new plan with help from the Washington State Department of Emergency Management. While every future disaster will undoubtedly provide opportunities to learn and to refine this plan, we can all take pride in knowing that our first responders, emergency management officials, utilities and government entities all have a plan to reply upon in coordinating during future disasters.
HOUSING AVAILABILITY AND AFFORDABILITY ASSESSMENT Our community continues to feel the impacts of losing hundreds of housing units to the fires and floods of 2014 and 2015. Housing availability and affordability were identified as major needs following the fires of 2014. As an organization, Methow Valley Long Term Recovery funded a comprehensive Housing Availability and Affordability Needs Assessment and Action Plan in 2016. That plan was completed in October 2016, and the steering committee that guided that effort has expended to include over 25 diverse community partners. This group is working this winter to create a new organization to be dedicated to the important issues of housing availability and affordability in our community. Watch for more information in early 2017 as we work collaboratively to build a foundation for ensuring that the housing issues of our community receive the attention that they deserve into the future.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I came in here last night and kept walking from room to room, shaking my head,” said Joe Glandon about his new home. Glandon was congratulated by Carlene Anders, executive director of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group. Photo by Marcy Stamper
Volunteers jumped into action immediately after the Carlton Complex Fire, collecting donations and coordinating other resources for fire survivors. Photo by Marcy Stamper
METHOW VALLEY LONG TERM RECOVERY BOARD MEMBERS: Jason Paulsen, president Julie Muyllaert, treasurer Ronda Bradeen, secretary Adrianne Moore Cindy Button David Gottula Glen Schmekel Don Linnertz Advisory members: Soo Ing-Moody, mayor, Town of Twisp Tom Venable, superintendent, Methow Valley School District
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ensure our community is informed of emergency bulletins from state and federal officials. Not only does local radio provide a means for sharing the latest information, but KTRT 97.5 FM has also gifted our community with resources on topics related to managing the stress associated with a disaster. We feel really fortunate to have KTRT 97.5 FM as a resource in our community. The new generator will allow for the new Education Station space at TwispWorks to be available for local emergency management use, or use by the Methow Valley News for its disaster response and coverage. And thanks to support from Methownet. com, free public wi-fi will be made available during a disaster for those able to safely travel to the TwispWorks campus.
LOCAL BUSINESS RESILIENCY Many survivors made do with travel trailers until their new homes were completed by the recovery group. Photo by Marcy Stamper
LOCAL RADIO AND COMMUNICATIONS Living without a local radio station to help share information was a real challenge for a few days in 2014. Since that time we have partnered with the TwispWorks Foundation and KTRT 97.5 FM to install a back-up
generator and a back-up transmitter to provide redundancy during times of disaster or extended power outages. This new system has been tested during more recent outages, and it worked great. Additionally, KTRT has upgraded its technology to broadcast emergency alerts to
The summers of 2014 and 2015 each brought significant impacts to our local business community during what is one of the most important times of the year. We recognize that future disruptions will occur, taking the form of fires, rock slides, or inclement weather. While there is little we can do to stop these events, we can work to ensure that our local business community is as prepared as possible when they happen.
In this spirit, Methow Valley Long Term Recovery has partnered with TwispWorks by providing the start-up funding for a new position focused upon business resilience and a healthy economy here in the Methow Valley. Economic Development Coordinator Hannah McIntosh is actively working on a number of initiatives aimed at ensuring that our communities are places where our existing local businesses can thrive, and that new entrepreneurs have the support they need. Our vision is that this new capacity we have invested in through this partnership with TwispWorks can be sustained into the future, providing a new and lasting resource for our entire business community.
NEW TOOLS IN OUR TRANSPORTATION TOOLBOX Any time there is a closure of Highway 20, whether over the North Cascades Highway or Loup Loup, our local business community and emergency service providers are impacted. Those impacts quickly trickle down to all of us. Working with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), we have been able to create a new email notification system specific to Highway 20 between Burlington and Okanogan, providing timely notice of emergency closures,
OK ANOGAN COUNTY LONG TERM RECOVERY GROUP In September 2014, concerned community members stepped up to assist individuals, communities and businesses impacted by the firestorm of July 2014. They began to create a countywide network of volunteer leaders to function as a centralized point for inclusive, grass roots coordinated services. The group became the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group. By November 2014 it had filed as a nonprofit and its leaders started designing an organization that would be a single access point for all of Okanogan County for advocacy; referral and resource support; volunteer coordination; construction management for rebuilding; and
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disaster case management. In January 2015 the group hired Carlene Anders as executive director to build a recovery team of contractors and volunteers dedicated to helping as many people as possible – in whatever capacity they could – and to maximizing every donation dollar to its fullest. They created partnerships with local and national groups to provide life-changing assistance in what the disaster community calls the 3 Ms: Materials–Money–Muscle. After the fires of 2015, the group became the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG) and incorporated
recovery efforts and support for fire survivors in Okanogan, Chelan, Douglas, Stevens and Ferry counties. In 2016, OCLTRG and its partners recruited and coordinated more than 800 volunteers, who rebuilt homes and also did clean-up; removed foundations; and built fences, sheds and chicken coops. The recovery group channeled more than half a million dollars from other organizations to survivors through their unmet needs roundtable and disaster case management program. In summer 2016, OCLTRG completed 14 homes in phase I for people who were uninsured and in high need. OCLTRG has
started phase II, replacing 15 homes (eight stick-built and seven manufactured homes), scheduled for completion in September 2017. Phase III, another five to 15 homes, is in the planning and funding stage and is scheduled to begin in June 2017. The group has received recognition from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) for its grass roots approach to recovery. “Given its success and strong leadership, OCLTRG now serves as a national model to help other rural communities recover from wildfires,” said Thomas Dargan, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA.
TWISPWORKS PARTNERSHIPS ENHANCE PREPAREDNESS BY DON LINNERTZ
Residents and visitors alike are well aware of the damaging effects the 2014-2015 wildfire seasons caused to people, homes and businesses in the Methow Valley. The loss of life was unimaginable. The loss of property and the impact the fires had to the local economy highlighted the need to be more prepared should a natural disaster impact our community again. Focusing on our mission of increasing the economic vitality of the Methow Valley, TwispWorks has partnered with organizations including the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR), the Okano-
delays or adverse weather conditions impacting Washington Pass or Loup Loup Pass. This new system is modeled on the popular pass reopening system already in place at WSDOT, and you can help to make it a success by subscribing at WSDOT’s
Carlene Anders, executive director of the county’s long-term recovery group, toured one of the houses being built for fire survivors in Pateros. Photo by Marcy Stamper
gan County Electrical Cooperative and Methownet.com to support preparedness efforts. These partnerships are focused on hardening infrastructure to enhance critical communications and support business resiliency. Through a generous grant from MVLTR, TwispWorks has installed a backup transmitter for local radio station KTRT. The backup transmitter is located on McClure Mountain but can be moved if threatened by a natural disaster. This grant, along with a generous donation from Okanogan County Electrical Cooperative, made possible the purchase of a backup generator on the TwispWorks campus and the installation of a propane tank to fuel the
Washington Pass webpage.
SUPPORTING COUNTYWIDE LONG-TERM RECOVERY AND HOUSING REBUILD While our work has been primarily focused in a geographic area consistent with the Methow Valley School District, we have also provided leadership and guidance to the countywide longterm recovery effort, including the historic housing rebuilding effort. Thanks to the work of Carlene Anders, executive director of Long Term Recovery, and countless others, families who lost their homes to the fires of 2014 have already moved into 14 new homes constructed with incredible volunteer support. Work continues to replace homes lost to fire across Okanogan County in both 2014 and 2015, so please contact Carlene if you have an interest in volunteering your time or building expertise.
DISASTER CASE MANAGEMENT THROUGH ROOM ONE It became clear quickly in 2014 that there was a need for coordinated
generator. The backup generator will ensure KTRT, the Methow Valley News and the Education Station, a community meeting space on the TwispWorks campus, are powered during times of extended electrical outages. Using this new infrastructure, KTRT and the Methow Valley News will be able to continue broadcasting and publishing the news and information people need to stay safe and informed. In the event of a natural disaster, Methownet.com has also agreed to deliver free wireless internet throughout the TwispWorks campus, providing a gathering place for people to send and receive email messages, charge phones and
disaster case management in our community and beyond. Room One, a founding organization of MVLTR, generously stepped into this daunting role and expertly created a system for ensuring that those with needs following the fire had a friendly face to turn to for support. Working with funders including the Community Foundation of North Central Washington and other critical service providers in our region including the Carlton Complex Assistance and Fire Relief Network, Room One oversaw the provision of services to more than 617 individuals or families. Ongoing case management services were provided to 256 individuals or families, with 174 of them experiencing a “complete loss” as part of the fires. All told, Room One’s case managers traveled more than 20,000 miles responding to the needs of families in our community and beyond. The model established by Room One has been expanded countywide following the fires of 2015, and handed-off to the countywide recovery organization, where it continues to serve the needs of those impacted by fires.
support each other during times of crisis. These efforts are complemented by TwispWorks’ hiring of Hannah McIntosh as economic development coordinator. Through additional funding from the MVLTR, she is focused on identifying and implementing opportunities for economic recovery and resilience in the Methow Valley in response to the wildfires. TwispWorks is committed to playing a leadership role in ensuring that in times of crisis the people and businesses in the Methow Valley are safe, informed and supported. Don Linnertz is executive director of TwispWorks.
If clouds have silver linings, then smoke plumes can too. We believe strongly that one of the most important ways we can honor the tragedy and losses of 2014 and 2015 is to work better together to make our community, our valley and our county a stronger, healthier, more resilient place to live, work and recreate. We’re just over two years into a process that the disaster-recovery planning experts say can take a decade or longer, but we are proud to report that diverse leaders from across our community and our county are working together in new ways as a result of these events. Thank you to everyone who has taken time to become better prepared, to those who have so generously made the work of Methow Valley Long Term Recovery possible through your gifts of support, and to all who have contributed to these accomplishments in our community since 2014! Jason Paulsen is executive director of the Methow Conservancy and president of the Methow Valley Long Term Recovery board of directors. • 11 •
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Fighting Fire With Fire The history of Methow Valley wildfires points to prescribed burns, thinning as smart responses BY SUSAN PRICHARD
N recent years, wildfire seasons in the western United States have become so intense that many of us who make our home in dry, fireprone areas are grappling with how to live with fire. When I moved to the Methow Valley in 2004, I thought I was prepared for the reality of wildfires. As a fire ecologist, I had studied climate change and knew the predictions of hotter, drier and longer fire seasons. But the severity and massive size of recent wildfires in our area have highlighted the importance of making our communities more resilient to fire. In addition to better preparing for the inevitability of fire, my research and related studies have shown that prescribed burns and proactive thinning can make our neighboring forests less susceptible to large fires.
A HISTORY OF FREQUENT FIRE
The Methow Valley is such a special place that when I originally published this article in The Conversation, an online magazine that provides in-depth coverage of current events, I hesitated to share its name. In spite of record-breaking wildfire seasons in recent years, many people are still moving here to build cabins in the woods.
Parts of the Tripod Fire in 2006 burned in a mosaic pattern of trees of different ages, which can prevent large-scale, contiguous burns. It’s evidence that prescribed burning and thinning can make forests more resilient. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
The valley is stunningly beautiful, with shrub-steppe and ponderosa pine lowlands grading into mixed conifer forests at higher elevations, topped by high mountain peaks. Our valley was named by Native Americans for the balsamroot sunflower blossoms that wash the springtime hillsides in brilliant gold. The native plants here depend on fire for growing space and regeneration. The arrowleaf balsamroot, for example, is deeply rooted and easily resprouts following fire. Ponderosa pine trees have thick, deeply grooved bark and can shed their lower
branches. If surface fires burn them, thick bark insulates their living tissue, and the lack of lower branches can prevent fires from spreading to crowns. Historically, most semi-arid landscapes of western North America evolved with frequent fire. Everchanging patterns of forest and rangeland vegetation were created by past burns. Grasslands, shrublands, open-grown and closed-canopy forests were all part of the patchwork. Prior wildfire patterns constrained future fire spread through a mosaic of forest and nonforest vegetation
that, in general, did not let fire burn contagiously across vast areas. While fires burned frequently, they were small to medium in size. Large fires, those of more than 10,000 acres, were infrequent by comparison and occurred during prolonged droughts, often under hot and windy conditions. Today, in the absence of frequent fire, the same semi-arid landscapes have much more continuous forest cover. And fires, when they do burn, tend to be larger and more severe. Our community lived through such fire events in the summers of 2014
An air tanker in the Chelan Butte wildfire in August 2015. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons, by Ben Brooks from Fife WA, USA - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
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Unmanaged stands on the left compared to an adjacent plot that’s been thinned to reduce vulnerability to severe fire. Photo courtesy of Susan J Prichard
HOW THE FORESTS HAVE CHANGED Despite recent wildfires, semi-arid forests in my valley and across the inland West are still under a chronic fire deficit, resulting from a variety of historical factors. Fire suppression, displacement of native people, railroad and road building, and livestock grazing all contributed to the lack of fire. It is difficult to convey how excluding fires from forests can so radically change them. Imagine if we replaced days of rain and snow with sunshine: the absence of precipitation would quickly shift all existing vegetation to sparse desert. Similarly, the near absence of fire over the past century has dramatically altered semi-arid landscapes, gradually replacing varied burn mosaics, characterized by forests of varying ages, shrublands and grasslands, with dense, multilayered forests. Markedly different wildfire behavior accompanies these changes. Wildfires are now able to contagiously • 14 •
burn vast areas of flammable vegetation, and severe fires, including crown fires that consume forest canopies, are increasingly common. A rapidly warming climate is also contributing to large and severe wildfires. It was after an early and dry spring in 2006 that the largest wildfire in Washington state in over 50 years,
the Tripod Complex Fire, raged north of Winthrop. I remember watching it start — awestruck by the smoke plume, which resembled the aftermath of a bomb explosion. As the plume collapsed and smoke settled into our valley, the reality of living through a major wildfire sunk in. I wasn’t prepared for this kind of fire.
In addition to better preparing for the inevitability of fire, my research and related studies have shown that prescribed burns and proactive thinning can make our neighboring forests less susceptible to large fires. Susan Prichard
None of us was. Eight years later, the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire burned down our valley, and in two days became the largest wildfire in state history. Lightning strikes had started many small fires, and when high winds arrived on July 17, fire starts exploded into firestorms, coalescing to burn more than 160,000 acres and traveling nearly 40 miles in just nine hours. If you asked anyone in our valley who lived through the Carlton Complex fires, you would need to prepare for a long story. Evacuations of everyone downwind of the fires. Night skies filled with ember showers. More than 300 homes were destroyed. Loss of pets and livestock. Properties so blackened and charred that owners chose to move. Wideranging opinions about firefighter responses, from profound gratitude to what might have been done. Massive flood and mudslide events that followed. Heroic acts of tight-knit neighborhoods and communities as we pulled together and helped each other recover and rebuild. Recovery had just begun when
the 2015 wildfire season struck. Drought continued across the region and set the stage for a second, firefilled summer. In mid-July, lightning storms ignited the Okanogan Complex, the latest record-holding fire in state history. Some 120 homes were destroyed, many in neighboring communities to the north and south. In our valley, three firefighters lost their lives, and a fourth was badly burned. After all that we have been through, the loss and injury of these young people is the most devastating.
EVIDENCE FOR THINNING AND PRESCRIBED BURNS Methow Valley residents are still reeling from the events of 2014 and 2015. Although the summer of 2016 was mild in comparison with the previous two fire-filled summers, our community is coming to terms with the continuing reality of wildfires. By my estimate, since 1990 over one-third of our watershed has burned. We are beginning to discuss what it means to be fire-adapted: making our homes less penetrable to burning embers, reducing fuels and thinning vegetation around our properties, and choosing better places to live and build. We can also create safe access for firefighters, plan emergency evacuation routes, and manage dry forests to be more resilient. After decades of fire exclusion, dense and dry forests with heavy accumulations of fuel and understory vegetation often need to be treated with a combination of thinning and prescribed burning. Restoring landscape patterns will take time and careful management to mitigate how future wildfires burn across landscapes. From our research, we know that fuel reduction in dry forests can mitigate the effects of wildfires. After the 2006 Tripod fires, we studied how past forest thinning and prescribed burning treatments influenced subsequent wildfire severity. We found that tree mortality was high in untreated or recently thinned forests, but lower in forests that had been recently thinned and prescribed burned. Our results, along with other studies in the western United States, provide compelling evidence that thinning, in combination with
prescribed burning, can make forests more resilient. On average, one-quarter of mature trees died in thinned and prescribed burned forests compared to 60 to 65 percent of trees in untreated or thinned forests. In a driving tour of the Tripod burn post-wildfire, areas that were prescribed burned are generally green islands amidst a gray sea of standing dead trees. In ongoing research, we hope to learn how restoration treatments can be strategically placed to create more fire-resistant landscapes.
Wildfires also have a critical role in restoration. The 2014 Carlton Complex and 2015 Okanogan Complex fires burned the borders of the Tripod fire and of other recent wildfires, but because fuels on the margins of these previously burned areas were sparse, the fires didn’t spread. As more fires burn across dry forests, they are creating vast
puzzle-piece mosaics, and in time may become more self-regulating — limiting the size and spread of subsequent fires. However, the imprints of recent fires are large, and it will take many small to medium wildfires to restore the diverse mosaic these landscapes need and once supported. Managing naturally ignited wildfires that burn in the late season or under favorable weather conditions, in combination with prescribed burning, will be essential to restore self-regulating landscapes. Recent summers have taught us that we can’t permanently exclude fire from our valley or other fire-prone areas. This is difficult to accept for a community so recently devastated by fire and sick of the smoke that comes with it. However, summers are getting hotter and drier, and more wildfires are on the way. We have to adapt the way we live with fire and learn ways to promote resilience — within our homes, communities and neighboring forests.
Native peoples, less than 150 years ago, proactively burned the landscapes we currently inhabit — for personal safety, food production and enhanced forage for deer and elk. In some places, people still maintain and use traditional fire knowledge. As we too learn to be more fireadapted, we need to embrace fire not only as an ongoing problem but also as an essential part of the solution. Susan Prichard is a research scientist with the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. She studies fire ecology, forest management and climate change and lives full-time in the Methow Valley. This article was originally published on The Conversation at www. theconversation.com under the title, “Learning to live with wildfires: how communities can become ‘fire-adapted’.” Paul Hessburg, landscape ecologist with the Wenatchee Fire Sciences Laboratory, provided substantial contributions to this article.
Warmer and drier springs are contributing to more extreme fire events, such as the Tripod Complex Fire of 2006, which was the largest in Washington state in over 50 years at the time. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
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Large-scaLe restoration USFS project aims to manage forests for more resiliency against fires and climate change BY ANN MCCREARY
N an era of increasingly large and destructive forest fires, a strategy for managing OkanoganWenatchee National Forest lands to make them more resilient will soon be put to its first test in the Methow Valley. The nation’s dry forests, especially forests like those surrounding the Methow Valley, have undergone so many changes as a result of a century of fire suppression, logging of large fire-resistant trees, and other human interventions that they can no longer tolerate fires that historically played an important role in keeping them healthy. Called the “Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Restoration Strategy,” the management approach focuses on the goal of restoring forests’ ability to survive fire and a more recent threat — climate change. The new approach will be applied to a large restoration project planned for the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek sub-watersheds, called the “Mission Project,” named after Mission Peak that lies on the border between the two watersheds. The restoration strategy is based on understanding historical conditions of landscapes in the OkanoganWenatchee National Forest, as well as considering the future effects on forest ecosystems of a warmer, drier climate resulting from climate
Derek Churchill (center), a University of Washington forestry researcher, led a field trip on the Methow Valley Ranger District in 2015 for people interested in learning about current forest restoration strategies. Photo by Ann McCreary
change. The strategy differs from past forest-management practices by addressing restoration on a significantly larger scale, developing projects that integrate considerations for vegetation, wildlife, hydrology, road management and habitat across entire watersheds of 10,000 to 50,000 acres. The strategy utilizes GIS mapping and sophisticated software to
evaluate current forest conditions and compare them to historic conditions and potential future conditions under climate change, in order to develop interventions aimed at restoring resilience. “The Forest Restoration Strategy is a state-of-the-art ecological restoration approach,” said Lloyd McGee of the Nature Conservancy. “With the restoration strategy we start with a landscape vision. This is
not business-as-usual,” said McGee, who is also co-chairman of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (NCWFHC). The collaborative is another new factor in restoration planning for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Formed in 2013, the collaborative includes timber industry and conservation groups; tribal government; elected officials; and local, state and federal land managers.
During a forest restoration field trip, U.S. Forest Service silviculturist Pete Stothart studies plans for thinning trees on a computer tablet. Photo by Ann McCreary
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The goal of the diverse group is to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in Okanogan and Chelan counties by providing additional staff and expertise to help the Forest Service move projects forward.
Impetus for creating the forest health collaborative came from recognition of forest conditions that have contributed in recent decades to enormous and devastating fires, as well as disease and insect infestations, and the Forest Service’s inability to keep up with needed restoration work. “As a collective, we recognize that a great preponderance of science for dry-forest restoration states there is a high need for active management,” McGee said. “Conditions have to change physically in these landscapes or we’re going to continue having the extraordinary megafires that we have now.” Forests that were once adapted to periodic fire are now so dense and dominated by small trees that they cannot survive fires that have grown exponentially in size and severity. After decades of fire suppression
by humans, forests are overgrown and have lost the natural mosaic pattern — a patchwork of different ages, species, and sizes of trees — that developed when fires periodically burned through forests and then stopped when they reached a previously burned area. Now many forests have become an unbroken carpet of dense, and often unhealthy, trees that are prime for fire. A study released in 2015 by The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service concluded that 500,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties need treatment to become more resilient to natural disturbances like fires, insects and diseases. Currently, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest treats about 20,000 acres annually, or about 4 percent of the area needing treatment. The most widely used treatments are thinning to remove small trees and shrubs that have grown up under mature trees, competing for nutrients and water and often carrying fire into the canopy; prescribed burning to reduce debris on the forest floor that results from thinning and from decades of fire suppression; and
“Conditions have to change physically in these landscapes or we’re going to continue having the extraordinary megafires that we have now.” Lloyd McGee, the Nature Conservancy and co-chairman of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative (NCWFHC) overstory thinning to open up the upper tree canopy, minimize spread of crown fire, and reduce competition among trees. Another approach, McGee said, “is allowing wildfire to be controlled but continue to burn where good ecological outcomes can be achieved. That one can be controversial.” For Okanogan-Wenatchee forest officials, an extreme fire season in 1994 provided a wake-up call about the condition of the national forest, said Richy Harrod, deputy fire management officer for the forest. That year 186,000 acres of the forest
burned, costing $70 million for suppression and $18 million for rehabilitation. Forest officials subsequently developed a “Dry Forest Strategy” to try to bring the forests back into balance. In 2009 a panel of scientists from the Wenatchee Forestry Sciences Laboratory worked on developing an updated strategy based on current understandings of forest ecology and effective treatments and incorporating GIS mapping technology and decision making software. The forest-restoration strategy was finalized in 2010. “This strategy takes an interdisciplinary approach to forest management and takes into account climate change. It will be a template for future management,” said Harrod, who was one of the authors.
Members of a forest restoration field trip head into the forest to study tree growth patterns. Photo by Ann McCreary
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The restoration process starts with selecting a large landscape, encompassing as many as three watersheds and 50,000 acres, and using aerial photographs and field studies to evaluate current conditions such as fire impacts, vegetation, wildlife, aquatics, and susceptibility to insects and disease. The current ecosystem conditions are then compared to past conditions, using historical (pre-fire suppression) photographs, and to potential warmer, drier conditions expected to impact the forest in the future. Forest managers also compare the project area to similar watersheds to evaluate past and future conditions that impact forest resiliency. The strategy then identifies which areas are most changed from their historical condition. Restoration
treatments are designed to focus on specific areas that are most likely to improve the larger landscape. “By analyzing whole watersheds, we can understand where, why and how terrestrial and aquatic conditions have changed. This approach allows us to develop integrated plans for work over large areas,” Harrod said. Although the strategy evaluates large landscapes, the actual treatments — thinning, controlled burning, road management — will be conducted on smaller areas within that landscape. “The main benefit is we strategically place our treatments,” Harrod said. “We’re targeting places that have the largest effect on the landscape … to interrupt fire flow, and impact insects and diseases.” Forest ecosystems are inherently complex. In order to guide evaluation and project planning, the restoration strategy utilizes decision-making software with the imposing name “Ecosystem Management Decision Support System” or EMDS. “We have always looked at historic patterns and reactions to disturbances, and how those have changed,” said Meg Trebon, the interdisciplinary team leader of the Mission Restoration Project on the Methow Valley Ranger District. “What EMDS has done is to introduce a much broader range of different measurements of what is going on in the landscape, in comparison to other landscapes that … are selected for strong similarities in environment, vegetation and disturbance processes,” Trebon said. “It provides a grounded comparison. When we say we should do this treatment in this area to get this type of stand structure, it’s based on a lot of science about comparable watersheds,” she said. The analysis guides a landscape “prescription,” which might include identifying areas where naturally occurring fire should be allowed to burn, said Derek Churchill, a University of Washington forestry researcher who has worked on a contract basis with the forest collaborative. The landscape prescription prioritizes treatments that are designed to accomplish goals like shifting the composition of trees to more
fire-tolerant and drought-tolerant species; removing smaller trees and leaving larger, older trees; reducing ladder and surface fuels; and restoring the forest’s natural spatial patterns, Churchill said. “Spatial patterns matter,” said Churchill. Forests don’t grow like a tree farm, with uniform spacing between trees, but are a messier combination of large and small clumps of trees, open spaces between the clumps, and individual trees interspersed. “Forestry in the past was often focused on managing for uniform conditions. We used to do plantationstyle thinning. But our main focus is no longer growing wood; now we’re trying to restore ‘clumpy-gappy’ patterns that we think are more resilient to fires and other disturbances,” Churchill said. Churchill takes treatment prescriptions down to the level of individual trees within stands of trees, using patterns from historical forests to determine just how many clumps, openings and individual trees are needed to return tree stands to a more natural state. He helped develop an application that can be loaded onto computer tablets that forest managers can take into the forests to guide how to mark trees for thinning. “It’s an operationally practical and quantifiable method to create a desired range of spatial patterns,” Churchill said. Working from the broader landscape perspective down to the level of small stands of trees provides a “holistic approach” to helping forests become less vulnerable to fire and disease, Churchill said. “We’re looking at habitat, fire, aquatics, insects and disease. We’re looking at all the tradeoffs of those together in one framework. People were thinking about that before, but it wasn’t as integrated,” he said. Applying current technology and decision-making software, he added, provides a “rigorous approach to quantifying departures from historical conditions, and allows us to have some clear targets for how much of the watershed we want to move into a different kind of forest — a less dense, more variable forest.”
Forests naturally grow in uneven patterns with clumps of trees, open spaces and individual trees. Trees are marked to be preserved as part of a prescription for treatment that seeks to replicate historical patterns to help forests become more resilient to fire, disease and drought. Photo by Ann McCreary
BETTER SCIENCE, WITH TRADEOFFS “Yes, it’s better science,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley District ranger. But, he added, people who live near forests and value them for recreation and resources may wonder what result they can expect from the restoration strategy. “If we are successful, it means our dry forests will be more open and resilient to stressors such as climate change, insect and disease outbreaks, and wildfire. The more-open forest will also mean safer places [for
firefighters] to engage wildfire with a higher probability of success,” Liu said. The forests “will look more natural and less like a plantation,” he said. “We will have fewer large-scale, high-severity wildfires and consequently more productive forests. Our streams will run clearer with less sediment.” “The trade-off is we will have more prescribed burns, which means smoke in the spring and fall, more acres of thinning … and on the aquatic side, fewer open roads,” Liu said. • 19 •
a prescription for heaLthy forests Prescribed burns can help prevent catastrophic wildfires BY ANN MCCREARY
ROM a vantage point high on Buck Mountain overlooking the Eightmile Creek drainage, green forests carpet the mountains as far as the eye can see. To most people, it probably looks like a healthy landscape. But to forest specialists like Matt Ellis, fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District, it looks out of whack. “This stand isn’t functioning like it would historically,” Ellis said, indicating the forests stretching into the distance. With the U.S. Forest Service’s longstanding policy of fire suppression, natural fire hasn’t moved across this landscape for half a century. Yet historically, this type of dry forest experienced fire every 35 to 50 years in a natural process that kept forests healthy, Ellis said. Without a regular cycle of fire, forests on the Methow ranger district, like forests across the West, have grown unnaturally dense with smalldiameter trees, and forest floors are littered with shrubs and dead wood. Those conditions mean that wildfire, when it does happen, is more likely to grow into a conflagration that kills large tracts of forest, produces huge amounts of smoke, and threatens people and property near national forests. From the Buck Mountain overlook, Ellis pointed to a swath of trees along a hillside where brown, scorched trees are interspersed among the green. It’s a 900-acre area where the Methow Ranger District conducted
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prescribed burning last spring. Ellis would like to see a lot more of that on the landscape, he told about 10 local citizens who accompanied him on a field trip in the fall of 2016 to visit prescribed-burn sites in the Eightmile Creek drainage and learn more about prescribed burning. “We need to do this on a scale of 20,000 to 30,000 acres a year,” until forests are returned to historical conditions, Ellis said. So far this year, only about 1,000 acres have been burned out of the district’s 1.4
million acres, he told participants on the field trip.
PRESCRIBED FIRE LEGISLATION The forest field trip was part of an effort to increase public understanding and acceptance of prescribed burning, which has provoked public outcry in past years when smoke from prescribed fires has drifted into residential areas. Residents of the Methow Valley also received a postcard about prescribed burning, describing the process for approving and conducting prescribed burns, which are intentionally set fires designed to burn at low intensity to reduce fuels and improve forest health.
These efforts to inform the public are a result of state legislation passed in 2016 that is aimed at increasing the use of prescribed fire as a tool to prevent catastrophic wildfires and help forests become more resilient to fire and disease. House Bill 2928 was sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) and directs the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conduct a pilot project of “forest resiliency burning” — also known as prescribed burning — in coordination with other agencies to evaluate the effectiveness of prescribed burning and the impacts on air quality. HB 2928 encourages larger, multiday prescribed burning projects that will be monitored and evaluated,
From Buck Mountain overlooking the Eightmile Creek drainage, Matt Ellis, fire management officer for the Methow Valley Ranger District, indicates where prescribed burning projects have thinned overgrown forests in the drainage. Photo by Ann McCreary
with findings summarized in a report to the Legislature in 2018. The report will include a comparative analysis between predicted smoke conditions and actual smoke conditions during prescribed burns. In the Methow Valley, three large prescribed burns are planned as part of the pilot project. The Goat prescribed burn unit includes 1,078 acres above the Edelweiss community; the Upper Rendezvous unit includes 1,036 acres up the Fawn Creek drainage; and the unit up Eightmile Creek would encompass 1,187 acres, said Jim Hink, fuels technician with the Methow Valley Ranger District. Prescribed fire managers in the district had hoped to conduct those prescribed burns in the fall of 2016, but they will most likely not happen until spring of 2017, Hink said.
WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY
Prescribed fire can only occur during precise windows of opportunity, when all conditions are favorable to ensure that the objectives of the burn can be safely achieved, Ellis explained during the Eightmile field trip. Each burn is conducted according to a detailed “prescription” that identifies the objectives of the burn and exactly what conditions need to be met in order to conduct it — including weather, temperature and humidity, wind speed and direction, fuel moisture, personnel and resources. The burn only happens when all those prescribed conditions are met, Ellis said. “If we need a 10-mile-perhour wind and don’t get it, we won’t burn,” he said. As a result, there are very limited periods — only about two weeks in spring and two weeks in fall (summer is too hot and dry) — when prescribed burning can occur safely and without sending too much smoke into nearby communities, Ellis said. “We only get a couple of weeks when everything lines up,” he said. Every burn prescription includes a contingency plan to ensure resources are available to deal with a fire if it escapes its perimeter, Ellis said. In addition to constraints of nature and resources, the fire managers say the ability to conduct prescribed burns has also been hampered by an approval process that is focused on
preventing smoke from impacting communities. Agencies are required to obtain approval from DNR in Olympia on the same day they intend to ignite a burn, which sometimes means mobilizing people and equipment — including helicopters — only to be forced to call off the operation when approval is withheld due to concerns over air quality, Ellis said. To maximize opportunities to burn, HB 2928 requires that DNR give approval at least 24 hours in advance for pilot projects like the three planned for the Methow Valley. That advance approval is intended to make it easier for fire managers to prepare and move ahead with planned burning.
In an area treated with prescribed burning last spring in the Eightmile drainage, the bark of large trees is charred black several feet up their trunks. The forest has an open feel dominated by big trees with grasses and a few small conifers in the open spaces between them. The forest floor is relatively clear of debris. It’s a contrast to adjacent forest that was not part of the prescribed burn, where small trees, logs, branches and underbrush fill the spaces between larger pines. “This stand is healthier from the standpoint of more light, water and soil for the trees left behind,” Ellis said of the area burned in spring of 2016. The prescribed fire burned off lower branches on many trees — the ladder fuels that would allow future fires to climb into the crowns of trees. It has “weeded out the understory” of shrubs, grasses, dead wood and duff, and “increased the chances of trees surviving a fire,” Ellis said. Forest managers are able to be very specific in preparing an area for a burn. In the Eightmile unit, for instance, they protected a specific snag that provides wildlife habitat by clearing away flammable material and digging a shallow trench around the base of the trunk. Some thick patches of trees and understory remain after the prescribed burn, and that’s OK, Ellis said. “In general we’re not looking for uniform treatment. We want a
A photo from the Sinlahekin area in northern Okanogan County shows an area on the left that was burned by prescribed fire in 2014, and an area on the right that burned in the Okanogan Complex wildfire in 2015. Photo courtesy of Dale Swedberg, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
mosaic pattern” that resembles natural fire, he said. Forests treated with prescribed fire are better able to survive wildfires and also offer firefighters a safe place to engage fires, he said. Some people wonder why overgrown forests can’t be treated by thinning them with chainsaws, rather than through fire, Ellis said. A combination of both thinning and prescribed burning is the best approach, he said, but prescribed fire can accomplish more for less money. “Prescribed fire is a very costeffective form of management, by hundreds and hundreds of dollars less per acre than mechanical thinning. Twenty people over a couple of days can do what it would take people with chainsaws years to do,” Ellis said.
Looking over the forested landscape from Buck Mountain, Ellis said prescribed burning would need to be done on a far larger scale and with repeated treatments to bring forests back to a natural, resilient state. But to be used effectively, prescribed burning will need to overcome the hurdle of public animosity.
The Legislature allocated more than $800,000 to carry out the pilot burning projects and evaluations required in HB 2928, and to increase public awareness and acceptance of prescribed burning. The effort to increase public acceptance is backed by several organizations that sponsored the prescribed burning postcard mailed in 2016. They include the Methow Conservancy, the Okanogan Conservation District, the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the Forest Service, the Chelan-Douglas Health District, the Resource Conservation and Development Council and the Washington Prescribed Fire Council. Communities in fire-prone areas like the Methow face a tradeoff when it comes to smoke, they pointed out in their mailing to local residents. Smoke from prescribed fire comes at known times and locations, is regulated and monitored, and uses best practices and weather conditions to reduce the amount of smoke. On the other hand, smoke from wildfires is unpredictable in location, quantity and spread, can significantly affect air quality, and can cause large economic impacts on communities. • 21 •
Where the WiLdfires reaLLy are Most of the acreage burned in 2014 and 2015 was in shrub-steppe or grassland areas — not forests BY ANN MCCREARY
ANY people equate wildfires with forest fires, but data doesn’t support that concept, says Peter Morrison, a conservation scientist with Pacific Biodiversity Institute (PBI) in Winthrop. In fact, recent fires in Washington state consumed far more shrubsteppe areas than forested areas, according to an assessment of the 2015 wildfires conducted by PBI, a nonprofit conservation research organization. Statewide, more than 50 percent of the area burned in 2015 was non-forest or areas with less than 30 percent tree cover, according to a PBI study of land ownership and vegetation in burned areas. In the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, 75 percent of the land burned was in non-forested environments, primarily shrub-steppe. “Only 2.27 percent of the areas burned by wildfires in Washington state were on National Forest lands covered by dense coniferous forests (tree cover more than 70 percent),” PBI found in its analysis of the 2015 fires. “Another 3 percent of the burned area was on National Forest land
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Map of extent of wildfires during the 2015 fire season. Courtesy of Pacific Biodiversity Institute
with 60 – 70 percent tree cover. The fires burned primarily on shrubsteppe, grasslands and open forest and mostly on non-federal lands. This same pattern repeats itself year after year,” according to the PBI analysis. PBI conducted GIS analysis of 2015 fire perimeters and overlaid that with the most recent LANDFIRE vegetation data to determine what kinds of ecosystems burned. LANDFIRE is a shared program between the wildland fire management programs of the U.S. Department
of Agriculture’s Forest Service and U.S. Department of the Interior. The program provides data that describes vegetation, wildland fuel, and fire regimes across the United States. Understanding where wildfires occur has important implications for local and national policies, Morrison said in an interview. “The point is that fires on National Forest lands are important, but it’s not the big picture. We have to come to grips with that in terms of fire management and forest policies,” he said.
Morrison takes issue with the idea that projects aimed at thinning and logging on national forests will “save us from the devastating effects of wildfires,” since most fires burn on non-forested lands. “It is difficult to argue that the wildfires that burned in Washington state during 2015 (or the entire country) would have been prevented or significantly diminished by more thinning or logging on National Forest land,” the PBI report said. Fire suppression has been the
policy of the U.S. Forest Service for 100 years, but fire has also been suppressed in other environments, including shrub-steppe areas that are prevalent in the Methow Valley. And the result of that approach became painfully clear in the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire and the 2015 Twisp River Fire, Morrison said. “Because we’ve suppressed fire so long, the shrub-steppe has developed huge fuel loads. A lot of shrub-steppe was like old growth … with bitterbrush 10 to 15 feet tall,” he said. “Fires move much more quickly in shrublands and grasslands. Those open vegetation types don’t slow the fire down like forests do,” Morrison said. “What we saw with the Carlton Complex Fire, most of it was burning in non-forests. It moved very rapidly due to a combination of high winds and non-forest vegetation types.” Morrison advocates conducting prescribed burning to reduce fuels in shrub-steppe on private and public lands.
“We need to find a way to use prescribed fires in shrub-steppe landscape,” Morrison said. “The longer that shrub-steppe continues to get denser and taller, it develops more fuel. We would like to see federal and state agencies that have experience with prescribed fire work with private property owners where they have adjacent boundaries.” Morrison would like to see that happen on his own property up the West Chewuch Road near Winthrop. “I own 80 acres and most of that is shrub-steppe. I’ve wanted to do a prescribed burn up there for decades but I can’t do it because of liability issues and I don’t have the wherewithal to do it,” he said.
SKEPTICAL OF THINNING
Morrison said he supports efforts to improve forest health and resilience through prescribed burning and thinning. But, he said, these projects need to be very carefully designed and implemented.
“The logging projects of the past century were a primary cause of many of the forest-health problems that we see today,” Morrison said. He said he is “skeptical that forest-thinning projects that remove large trees in an attempt to generate timber volume will create resilient forests and solve wildfire risk issues.” Morrison believes the Mission Project forest restoration proposed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds, for example, “incorporates significantly too much removal of large trees to meet timber targets and will result in damage to forest ecosystems as a result.” PBI commented on the Mission Project, recommending that the work focus on hand-thinning of very small diameter trees and also include prescribed burning on shrub-steppe lands within the project area, Morrison said. In terms of protecting homes and communities, more fuels-reduction
work needs to take place on private and state lands, he said. In places like the Methow Valley, Morrison said, strategic firebreaks could be designed to protect the towns of Twisp and Winthrop from wildfire. Ultimately, however, efforts to manage wildfire or restore forests distract from the real issue behind extreme wildfires, Morrison asserted. “Fire scientists have known for decades that … global warming and other dimensions of climate change (more intense storms, more lightning, stronger winds) will promote larger, more ferocious wildfires,” the PBI report said. “That is exactly what is happening today. The future is here, now,” according to the report. “The only way to tackle the increasingly severe wildfire situation in Washington state, the U.S.A. and the entire world is to directly tackle the root cause of climate change.”
Researchers from Pacific Biodiversity Institute study post-fire recovery of the shrub-steppe. Photo courtesy of Pacific Biodiversity Institute
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Resiliency at Risk Climate change and ‘megafires’ are long-term threats to valley’s ecosystem ecosystem. “We are seeing wildlife and plant HE ecosystem of the Methow populations recover in areas of the Valley is adapted to wildfire, Carlton Complex Fire. But if both and therefore can potentially moderate-severity and high-severity benefit from it. But as climate change fires become increasingly widespread increases the frequency and intensity and occur more often, recoveries may of wildfires, even a fire-dependent become more difficult and ecosysecosystem may not be able to fully tems may lose resiliency,” a draft of recover. the study by Pacific Biodiversity (PBI) “Moderate fires have positive Institute found. implications for wildlife and native PBI is a nonprofit conservation plant regeneration,” according to research organization in Winthrop an ongoing study of impacts from headed by Peter Morrison, a conserrecent fires on the Methow Valley vation scientist. PBI’s study, “Climate Change and Ecosystem Resilience in the Methow Valley,” focuses on understanding forest and wildlife resilience to wildfire in the face of a changing climate. The study is still in draft form because research is ongoing. PBI researchers began collecting information soon after the Carlton Complex Fire swept through the Methow Valley in 2014, and continued to evaluate the impacts of that fire in 2015 and 2016. Through field studies, the research is evaluating impacts of wildfire on vegetation and wildlife, with the goal of helping guide future land-management decisions. “Okanogan County experienced two recordbreaking wildfire events, Pacific Biodiversity Institute both in size and intensity, BY ANN MCCREARY
“We are seeing wildlife and plant populations recover in areas of the Carlton Complex Fire. But if both moderate-severity and high-severity fires become increasingly widespread and occur more often, recoveries may become more difficult and ecosystems may lose resiliency.”
Early one morning, this moose calf was caught on camera in a burned area in July of 2016. Photo courtesy of Pacific Biodiversity Institute
in 2014 and 2015,” Morrison said. Like those in Okanogan County, fires throughout the western United States are becoming more frequent, burning larger areas, burning longer, beginning earlier in summer and lasting later in fall, and natural ignition sources such as lightning are increasing, Morrison said. “Historic and present management of public and private lands has worked in conjunction with changing climate to produce these ‘megafires.’ Fires suppression has been occurring on public and private lands for over
a century, allowing for buildup of fuels,” Morrison said.
PBI’s research is investigating how these megafires have affected habitat quality and wildlife in the Methow Valley, with a particular focus on western gray squirrels, which are listed as a threatened species in Washington state largely due to loss of habitat. Researchers from PBI have been studying western gray squirrels in the Methow Valley since 2009, analyzing how the squirrels use old ponderosa
A researcher from Pacific Biodiversity Institute at work in a stand of burned trees. Photo courtesy of Pacific Biodiversity Institute
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pines. The Methow Valley, particularly areas with remaining stands of old ponderosa pines, is among only a few isolated areas in the state where the squirrels are still found. The research has found most of the squirrels in the Methow Valley live in tributaries of the Methow River south of Twisp, like Black Canyon and Squaw Creek — areas that were hard hit by fires in 2014 and 2015. Western gray squirrels are especially sensitive to disturbance in their habitats, whether from human activities such as urbanization and logging, or natural disturbances such as wildfire. “Because of their sensitivity to disturbance, the western gray squirrel is an ideal species to use as an indicator species … to indicate the quality of the habitat,” Morrison said. PBI placed hair-sampling tubes (which capture bits of the squirrels’ fur) in burned areas in Black Canyon and Squaw Creek. The tubes were placed in areas that had been used to study squirrel populations in 20102011, before the large fires. • 26 •
Wildlife cameras caught many species of wildlife in areas burned by the Carlton Complex Fire, including coyotes, deer, western gray squirrels and black bears. The photos are assisting Pacific Biodiversity Institute’s ongoing study of the impact of wildfire on animals and plants. Photos courtesy of Pacific Biodiversity Institute
Researchers also placed motionactivated cameras within the drainages to assess the presence of other types of wildlife in the burned areas. “We were quite concerned that after Carlton Complex burned right through the core area [of the squirrels’ habitat] that we might see something close to almost total elimination of the population,” Morrison said. However, in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 fire, researchers saw evidence through hair-tube samples and cameras that squirrels had survived the fire. About 43 percent of the priority habitat for western gray squirrels in
the Methow Valley was impacted by the Carlton Complex, according to the PBI study. Additional prime squirrel habitat areas in the upper reaches of drainages like Squaw, McFarland and Black Canyon that escaped the Carlton Complex were burned in 2015 in the Okanogan and Chelan Complex fires. But the fire-adapted western gray squirrels, along with other species of wildlife, appear to be faring better than researchers expected. “Overall, we were pleased to see a wide variety of animals utilizing burned sites, as well as recovery of many plant species through all of our [study] sites. Western gray squirrel hair was found at over half of our sites (58 percent) in 2015 and in 2016 (56 percent),” PBI’s study said. Motion-sensor cameras and other wildlife sightings and signs provided evidence of mule deer, black bears, coyotes, bobcats, cougars, whitetail deer, numerous moose, and even a gray wolf, Morrison said. “There is considerable wildlife use of the [burned] area. It’s not like the wildlife was decimated. And it may well be that in subsequent years we actually see some wildlife species will
benefit from the fire,” Morrison said. Moose and mule deer in particular seemed to experience some benefits from the fires because “there has been tremendous vegetation regrowth” in the aftermath of the fires, Morrison said. However, he noted that during hard winters, mule deer may suffer due to the elimination of much of the bitterbrush that was an important winter food source.
Loss of old ponderosa pines in the fires may impact threatened western gray squirrels. “The western gray squirrels will likely be one of those species that takes the longest to come back to former population levels, because they like old growth and mature ponderosas,” Morrison said. Most of the area burned in the Carlton Complex — about 75 percent — was shrub-steppe. The remaining 25 percent was ponderosa pine forestlands. Morrison said trends in the Methow Valley, and for the planet as a whole, don’t bode well for survival of ponderosa pine forests. “We have a fair indication that
the trajectory we’re on is that we’ll be losing ponderosa pine forests and they’ll be converted to shrub-steppe or grasslands. We see indication of that already,” Morrison said. In many areas burned in the Carlton Complex Fire, the ponderosa pine overstory was killed “and we’re not seeing ponderosa pines regenerating,” he said. The record-breaking drought of 2015 made it even more difficult for the ponderosa pines and other vegetation to rebound from 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. “Any seedlings that got started after the fire that might have come up in spring of 2015 — almost all would have died that summer,” Morrison said. “It was a double whammy, particularly for the ponderosa pine forests. It’s a concern because ponderosa pine forests are fairly limited in the Methow Valley.” The valley bottom was once covered by extensive ponderosa pine forests, but most have been lost to human development, and today these forests “are one of Washington state’s most endangered ecosystems,” Morrison said. The combination of fires, drought and global warming point to continued erosion of ponderosa pine forests, and a conversion of forest ecosystems to shrub-steppe ecosystems. “It’s pretty clear the trajectory we’re on. And because it’s being converted to shrub-steppe, the trajectory is more of these big fires in the future. We may see the same areas burning over again in 15 to 20 years,” he said. This type of conversion from one type of ecosystem to another, called a “phase shift,” is predicted to accelerate as a result of environmental disturbances caused by climate change, Morrison said. “Climate scientists think that we’ll have more severe extremes,” like Washington state experienced with the 2015 drought, he said. “It’s the extremes that make the biggest difference in terms of what plant species and wildlife species can deal with,” Morrison said. “The combination of the wildfires, drought and very high temperatures during the summers of 2014 and 2015 made survival difficult for some species.” • 27 •
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a foRest-saving mission USFS project proposes new strategy for Libby and Buttermilk areas to decrease wildfire risks BY ANN MCCREARY
F nature were allowed to run its course, portions of the Libby Creek and Buttermilk Creek watersheds would have experienced natural fires every five to 15 years. Forest researchers say those fires historically played a role in keeping forests healthy — burning at low intensity, clearing out smaller trees and brush, and ultimately preventing extreme wildfires that spread out of control and destroy forests. Humans, however, have changed the natural course of fire throughout the West, just as they have in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds. “There would have historically been more frequent fires, about every 10 years in those dry, ponderosa pine sites,” said Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger. “Since the 1940s and ’50s, it’s up to six cycles that fire has been suppressed. Because of effective firefighting, what fires did start we caught them small, so you didn’t see the historic underburning,” said Liu. As a result, the forests in the Libby and Buttermilk areas, like many forests around the nation, have become unnaturally dense, overgrown and vulnerable to extreme fire, insects and disease, according to U.S. Forest Service officials. The Forest Service has developed plans to conduct thinning, prescribed burning and other forest and aquatic treatments in the Libby and Buttermilk watersheds as part of the “Mission Restoration Project,” which will
employ the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Restoration Strategy for the first time in the Methow Valley Ranger District. The strategy aims to restore forests’ natural resilience to wildfire, insects, disease and climate change. It differs from past forest-treatment practices in some key ways, most notably the size of the project area. The restoration strategy emphasizes evaluating and planning for large landscapes and developing interventions designed to benefit the entire area. In the case of the Mission Restoration Project, the area encompasses about 50,000 acres in the two watersheds at the western edge of the Carlton Complex Fire perimeter.
“Using the restoration strategy helps us understand what the project area looked like on the landscape scale before active management, and what it’s projected to look like using a conservative estimate of changed climate conditions,” said Meg Trebon, leader of the project’s interdisciplinary team. “This information gives us a good idea how resilient the area was to the primary disturbances that happen there, and in this area, the primary disturbance agent in our forests is fire,” Trebon said. A draft environmental assessment for the project was expected to be released by the end of 2016, she said.
The Libby and Buttermilk watersheds were identified as priorities for restoration because they are among the drier watersheds in the Methow Valley and have consequently missed numerous natural fire cycles, said Liu. The prospect of forest-restoration work in the Mission Restoration
“There would have historically been more frequent fires, about every 10 years in those dry, ponderosa pine sites. Since the 1940s and ’50s, it’s up to six cycles that fire has been suppressed. Because of effective firefighting, what fires did start we caught them small, so you didn’t see the historic underburning.” Mike Liu, Methow Valley district ranger
Project area is welcomed by some Methow Valley residents, and greeted with skepticism by others. News of the proposed project prompted residents of the Buttermilk Creek area, off Twisp River Road, to ask the Forest Service to draw the project boundaries to include their neighborhood. The neighborhood quickly organized into a Firewise community in the fall of 2015, to improve the likelihood of receiving funding for treatments on adjacent, overgrown federal forests. “I look at the woods. I see the potential,” said Robert Rivard, a former wildland firefighter and Buttermilk Creek resident who led the effort to include his neighborhood in the Mission Restoration Project. The Buttermilk area was threatened by the Little Bridge Creek Fire in 2014, and by the Twisp River Fire in 2015, raising consciousness among his neighbors, Rivard said. As a result of the Buttermilk landowners’ request, the Forest Service revised the Mission Restoration Project boundaries to include a section of forest land where Buttermilk Creek comes into the Twisp River drainage by the Buttermilk neighborhood. Some residents, however, have been skeptical about the Mission Restoration Project and have questioned the necessity of such a large-scale project, and the effectiveness of forest restoration and thinning in general. “I see a lot of problems in the scale they are talking about, both in ecological effects and cost,” said Pema Bresnahan, a Libby Creek homeowner. “The Mission area is my home. It’s one of the remaining unburned areas and it’s an oasis for wildlife.” Bresnahan said she is concerned that a “landscape-level logging operation on the Libby Creek and Buttermilk watersheds” will be the result of the Mission Restoration Project, and suggested that
Robert Rivard walks through U.S. Forest Service land adjacent to his home in the Buttermilk Creek area. Rivard led an effort to include forests near Buttermilk Creek in the Mission Restoration Project. Photo by Ann McCreary
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the Forest Service focus on creating buffer zones around homes and not conduct thinning in other areas. Liu said he understands why the public may question the Forest Service restoration plans. “I think some of the individuals have looked at past logging practices and have been disappointed with that,” Liu said. “Maybe there is a lack of faith in the current science that’s being used, or a lack of confidence that what we’re proposing will in fact benefit the system.”
Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service
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FOREST HEALTH COLLABORATIVE The Forest Service has been assisted by the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative in moving the project forward. Formed three years ago, the collaborative includes conservation, timber industry, government and tribal representatives interested in increasing the scale and pace of forest restoration projects. While the Mission Restoration Project evaluates approximately 50,000 acres, the actual area of land to be treated is more likely to be
about 10 percent of that total area, said Lloyd McGee of The Nature Conservancy, one of the organizations in the Forest Health Collaborative. “We start with a landscape vision. This does not mean we’re going to log the whole landscape. What it means is when we do thinning, we want to be able to see where it fits into the larger landscape … where we can strategically place thinning treatments so that we don’t get a megafire,” McGee said. “That 10 percent or so [to be treated] is based on where there is
current access, and where there is no other protection prohibiting management because of endangered species or some other designation that does not allow mechanical treatment or prescribed burning,” McGee said. The Forest Health Collaborative hired Derek Churchill, a University of Washington researcher and forestry consultant, to conduct a landscape analysis and develop recommendations for possible treatments in the watersheds. The landscape analysis looked at a range of factors, Churchill said. Using aerial photos and historical photos,
it assessed how much the area has changed from its natural, pre-fire suppression state; it evaluated the risk of extreme fire; and it assessed the condition of habitat for species such as spotted owls and salmon. “It really is a holistic landscape or watershed-wide approach. We’re looking at habitat, fire, insects and disease, aquatics across whole watersheds. We’re looking at all of those and the tradeoffs of those together in one framework,” Churchill said. The analysis also evaluated how the watershed could be impacted by climate change, and compared current conditions in the project area to historical conditions in drier watersheds to guide how treatment can take into consideration a warmer, drier future. “We think Buttermilk in 50 years is going to be more similar to other watersheds in the region that are currently in a drier condition,” Churchill said. To assist in the project, McGee and other members of the Forest Health Collaborative conducted field surveys
to gather information on potential aquatic restoration needs and proposed treatment areas.
In a summary of the project prepared for a public open house in the summer of 2016, the Forest Service described proposed treatments. Some of these proposals are likely to be modified in the draft environmental assessment as a result of public comment and further analysis, said project team leader Trebon. Among the initial proposals were: • Commercial thinning on 2,051 acres to restore historical tree species and growth patterns, reduce conifer competition in aspen stands, and remove diseased trees. • Understory thinning on 6,318 acres to remove small-diameter conifers up to 8 inches in diameter to reduce competition for limited water and decrease extreme wildfire risk. • Plantation thinning on 1,713 acres to remove understory small-diameter
“I look at the woods. I see the potential,” said Robert Rivard, a former smokejumper who helped organize the Buttermilk Creek area into a Firewise Community. Photo by Ann McCreary
conifers to promote resilient tree stands, develop large trees, and reduce competition for water. • Wetland thinning around the edges of Blackpine Meadows and Mission Pond wetland to reduce conifer encroachment.
“Using the restoration strategy helps us understand what the project area looked like on the landscape scale before active management, and what it’s projected to look like using a conservative estimate of changed climate conditions. This information gives us a good idea how resilient the area was to the primary disturbances that happen there, and in this area, the primary disturbance agent in our forests is fire.” Meg Trebon, leader of the Mission Restoration Project’s interdisciplinary team
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• Prescribed burning that includes 2,851 acres of hand-piling and burning; 850 acres of machine-piling and burning; 18 acres of burning landing piles; and 7,255 acres of underburning. The prescribed fire would reduce debris created by thinning and decades of fire suppression, and reintroduce fire effects similar to historical wildfires. • Soil-restoration treatment on 486 acres using a sub-soiler that breaks up compacted soils to restore soil productivity and hydrologic function in selected areas. Transportation changes are proposed on 136 miles of road, including closing 47 miles of road and decommissioning 33 miles to reduce sediment deposition into streams, restore hydrologic function and reduce roadmaintenance costs. Approximately 1.25 miles of temporary roads would be constructed to provide access during the project, and then decommissioned.
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legislative effoRts pRoduced mixed Results Local, state and federal officials look for ways to deal with megafires BY M A R C Y S TA M PE R
FTER two consecutive years of record-breaking wildfires and severely dry conditions throughout the West, local, state and federal officials immediately began calling for a new approach to address what Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee termed “the new phenomenon of megafires.” Recommended policy changes call for everything from intensive fuels treatments near homes to stricter zoning laws to new ways to pay for fire prevention and firefighting. “The stark reality is, our wildland fire environment is unlike anything we have ever faced,” said Peter Goldmark, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands. Federal and state legislators are exploring various ways of addressing these issues, but agreement and funding — particularly on the federal level — has remained elusive. At a 2016 U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing organized by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), representatives from state and county government and people who study fire talked about the urgent need to focus on prevention and preparedness, rather than just battle catastrophic fires. Elected officials, land managers and firefighters continue to urge Congress to reform federal fire policies and end what is called “fire borrowing.” Fire borrowing is the
term that has been assigned to the practice where the U.S. Forest Service ends up transferring money from other programs — including forest health and fuels reduction — to fight catastrophic fires. In the past 20 years, the amount of money spent fighting catastrophic fires has increased from 16 percent of the total Forest Service budget to more than half in 2015, according to “The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work,” an April 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Forest Service. Meanwhile, all other programs, including wildlife and fisheries habitat management and recreation, have seen significant cuts.
SUPPRESSION BUDGET GROWS Between the 2014 to 2015 fiscal years, the suppression budget grew by $115 million — and, as a result, non-fire programs were reduced by the same amount, according to the report. (The fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.) In 2014, the Forest Service’s share of fire suppression nationwide was $1.2 billion, more than $200 million above the 10-year average. Because funds were still available from previous years, the agency didn’t have to transfer funds from other programs to cover that, according to Babete Anderson, the National Press Officer for the Forest Service.
What the U.S. Forest Service pays for fire suppression nationwide – firefighters, helicopters and other sophisticated aircraft – has more than tripled in the past 20 years. Photo by Marcy Stamper
But in 2015, suppression costs reached $1.7 billion. The Forest Service had to transfer $703 million to pay for that, said Anderson. The Forest Service requests money
from Congress for wildfire suppression by calculating a rolling 10-year average of suppression expenditures. As a result, the suppression request increases or decreases with regard to
A sign on a burned hillside in the Tunk Valley, which burned severely in 2015 in the Okanogan Complex, captures the predicament facing the U.S. Forest Service. The agency has had to shift money from programs including facilities maintenance, recreation and forest health to fight fires. Photo by Marcy Stamper
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overall expenses within the previous 10 years, said Anderson. Fire suppression for 2016 was $1.6 billion. In the 2016 fiscal year, Congress made a one-time appropriation that enabled the Forest Service to pay for firefighting without transferring funds from non-fire accounts, said Anderson. While the $520 million appropriation helped in 2016, “it is not a sustainable path forward,” she said. The largest fires, just 1 to 2 percent of the total, consume 30 percent or more of the annual firefighting budget, according to the Forest Service report. If this trend continues, agency managers forecast a shift of almost $700 million over the next decade. “Today the agency spends over half of its budget on fire management activities and has seen a corresponding 39-percent decline in non-fire staffing since 1998,” Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment for USDA, told Congress in June 2016. “Left unchecked, two out of every three dollars appropriated to the Forest Service will be spent on fire programs in the next 10 years,” he said. Moreover, because transfers to pay for firefighting tend to happen at the
end of the year, it is hard for the Forest Service to plan. “Notably, the type of work delayed by the rising cost of suppression can include the needed restoration work on National Forest System lands,” said Bonnie.
AGREEMENT ELUDES CONGRESS These numbers have caught the attention of lawmakers. There have been several bipartisan proposals in Congress to address how the Forest Service pays for firefighting, but none have become law, according to Rosemarie Calabro Tully, press secretary for Cantwell at the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A proposal cosponsored by Cantwell and senators from Oregon, Idaho and Alaska, called the Wildfire Budgeting, Response, and Forest Management Act, would transfer additional money to the Forest Service once appropriated funds are exhausted. It would also allow agencies to invest any leftover funding for firefighting in fuels reduction and lessen the required environmental review to expedite these fuels-reduction projects. Even if these changes are approved, fire borrowing is not likely to fade away. Fire borrowing is “the great debate,” said Cantwell — the
Forest Service needs both the money to fight the fires and the money dedicated to fuels reductions.
MONEY FOR RECOVERY?
In the fall of 2016, Washington’s other senator, Patty Murray, proposed legislation to help communities recover from devastating wildfires and other natural disasters. Called the Rural Disaster Recovery Act, the legislation would create a new program to provide housing and other recovery services when individual assistance is not granted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Although FEMA granted disaster aid to help local governments and utilities rebuild in 2014 and 2015, the agency turned down Inslee’s request for individual assistance both years, even after he appealed the decision. “I believe that FEMA’s current standard does not adequately consider communities affected by wildfires — disasters which tend to impact large areas which can be sparsely populated,” said Inslee in 2015 after FEMA denied the individual assistance. The recovery act would also update programs that assist farmers and ranchers after a wildfire. Despite the efforts in Congress, governors of Western states remain frustrated by inaction. In November 2016, they sent a formal letter to Congressional leaders calling fire borrowing an “enduring issue” and urging the next Congress to make resolving it one of their highest priorities. Beyond the destruction of homes and infrastructure, wildfire affects air quality, public health and wildlife habitat, said the governors. Fires can degrade rivers and, when vegetation burns, there is less food and habitat for wildlife and less forage for livestock, they said. “The current funding situation has allowed severe wildfires to burn through crippling amounts of the very funds that should instead be used to prevent and reduce wildfire impacts, costs, and safety risks to firefighters and the public,” the governors said.
CLIMATE CHANGE As wildfires become larger and burn closer to communities, firefighters are at increased risk. Photo by Marcy Stamper
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The sense of urgency over how we fund prevention and firefighting is
increasing. The Forest Service attributes longer fire seasons — which are an average of 78 days longer than in 1970 — to climate change. Many scientists, foresters and fire managers believe the long-standing approach to firefighting has not kept pace with climate change and settlement trends in rural areas, Michael Medler, a spokesperson for Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology, told a Senate committee. The Forest Service treats only 2 million acres a year, whereas 10 times that acreage needs attention, he said. “Climate change is combining with years of fire suppression to create larger and hotter fires, and development has left thousands of communities vulnerable to fires that used to happen miles from anyone,” he said. These conditions put firefighters at risk, said Medler. “To make matters worse, our wildland firefighters are trained for the backcountry, but they are increasingly trying to protect communities from these hotter fires,” he said. Thinning the last one-quarter mile around communities could make a real difference and create year-round jobs, he said. Cantwell said they hope to pass legislation that incorporates lessons from recent fire seasons as well as science, although there was no agreement before Congress adjourned for its 2016 winter break. Moreover, there is uncertainty about how the incoming Trump administration and Congress will approach the issue. “A fire-funding fix has received bipartisan support on the Hill and we expect that support to continue. There are no indications whether the incoming administration will support a fire-funding fix,” said Anderson, the Forest Service press officer.
Efforts to address extreme fire risk are also occurring on the state level. In the fall of 2015, Inslee convened the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee to develop strategies to protect lives, livelihood, property and the environment. Okanogan County Commissioner Jim DeTro is one of the council’s 14 members. Inslee outlined the following priorities for the council: to make recommendations about how to respond to megafires and to strengthen
partnerships among local, state, federal and tribal governments for fire preparedness and response. The group held its first meeting in December 2015. Several of the council’s actions begin to address concerns raised after the Carlton and Okanogan Complex fires. Among these steps is a recommendation that the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) bolster training of local fireprotection districts so local resources can be dispatched more efficiently and effectively. They also seek to better inform residents and ranchers when there is a fire in their area. A list of ranchers in eastern Washington will now be provided to incident commanders and other fire managers. A new state law that allows people to enter public land if they can safely fight a fire there and that allows livestock owners to check on their animals has gone smoothly, according to Bob Johnson, DNR’s wildfire division manager. The council is also coming up with ways to draw on local expertise to assist fire managers with planning and combating a fire. That includes assembling a list of local landowners who can assist DNR firefighters with local information. They are streamlining the ability to use contractors to ensure they are ready and available for initial attack. The committee is also working on the issue of radio frequencies to reduce confusion. After being criticized for shortcomings in fire response in 2014 and 2015, DNR got additional resources in 2016, but the Legislature gave the agency less than a third of what DNR had requested. DNR asked for
The Twisp River Fire scorched hills and destroyed homes in the forested setting around Myer Creek, just west of where the fire started. Photo by Marcy Stamper
$24 million for staffing, equipment and training, but the final allocation was only $7 million, according to Johnson. The funding enabled DNR to add 12 larger engines in eastern Washington that accommodate four firefighters instead of three. The money also helped them upgrade communications, add an aviation dispatcher and conduct additional training, said Johnson. Another change in 2016 was to gather representatives from diverse firefighting agencies before the fire season began. About 75 firefighters and managers, emergency personnel, weather forecasters and staff from local, state, federal and tribal agencies met in Okanogan in May to share information and brainstorm about how to be better prepared. While many of them have worked together in the past, they said it was
invaluable to meet before the fire season to understand risks and roles and simply build relationships. One participant said it was the first time all these people had come together before the fire season to plan and share their expertise. They learned the importance of getting a spot forecast and being aware of common afternoon wind shifts before attacking a fire. “Know the weather before you engage,” a National Weather Service meteorologist told the group. In the 2015 Twisp River Fire, chaotic efforts to communicate on overloaded radio frequencies and a sudden wind shift are believed to have contributed to the entrapment that killed three firefighters and severely injured a fourth. The Okanogan County commissioners proposed their own ideas
for fire response and initial attack after the 2015 fire season ended, seeking ways to have more local control over firefighting. Firefighting response — particularly initial attack — improved in 2015, said outgoing Okanogan County Commissioner Ray Campbell. But Campbell and the other commissioners still hope to make it easier and faster to dispatch trained local forces. Campbell said this area has historically had temperatures over 100 degrees and 40-mile-per-hour winds. He has consulted with firefighters familiar with this regime. “These old firefighters from the leadership know how it was done years back,” he said. “We need to start to build a culture of living with fire — that’s the key,” a consultant who works to develop fire-adapted communities told the Senate committee.
We extend our deepest gratitude to those who continue to keep us safe
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Better connections during emergencies The county’s upgraded communications system will benefit first responders, 911 calls BY M A R C Y S TA M PE R
HAT Okanogan County’s communications guru called a “legacy system” is now history. Most of the outdated equipment and weak links have been replaced with new structures and modern wireless technology that will be used by first responders and for the county’s 911 system. That means that the 40-foot-tall wooden pole and yurt on McClure Mountain that housed the Methow Valley’s emergency communications equipment for half a century were retired in the fall of 2016, said Mike Worden, chief deputy of communications for the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department. “The yurt was not a reasonably modern facility — it looked like the top of a grain silo,” he said. The wooden pole, basically a telephone pole, has been replaced by a modern metal tower. Okanogan County’s needs for communications in an emergency exceeded the old technology on a regular basis, said Worden. “In a nutshell, what we had was very basic and limited,” he said. The new system will use microwave transmission instead of physical wires, which ran underground, across bridges or in the air —and were all vulnerable to damage from fires or other natural disasters, said Worden.
“The microwave network will send audio signals and data from one side of the county to the other,” he said. Moreover, because of the county’s topography, it’s important to have modern equipment that can send signals from one mountaintop to another. “We need to design for geography,” said Worden. New microwave antennas are also being erected on Flagg Mountain above Mazama, Goat Mountain near Alta Lake, and at a site in the eastern part of the county that will be shared with Ferry County. Okanogan County will also have new towers above Okanogan to handle communications for the central and northern parts of the county. While public-safety radio communications in the county were already transmitted wirelessly, Worden called it “dumb” wireless. “You couldn’t tell if the repeater was having technical problems or if the power was out,” he said. The new technology will give emergency managers the capacity to monitor all functions. “We’ll be able to tell everything — is the door open, are the batteries going, is work necessary?” said Worden. With the new equipment in place, many upgrades can be done remotely. The Methow Valley is also using older technology to reach as many people as possible. Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow has trained his staff to use ham radios, and the valley’s active ham radio club is ready to deploy to
get the word out in an emergency. Aero Methow Rescue Service also upgraded its ham radio equipment in its Twisp headquarters and mobile units. And people have realized the value of old-fashioned reader boards, which were used effectively during the 2015 fires to supplement social media and phone networks.
A second phase of the county’s communications upgrade, which won’t be finished until 2017, will allow the county to re-route emergency telephone circuits if needed so that 911 calls can still reach the dispatch center. Under the existing system, if the fiber-optic network that carried 911 calls was out of commission, a dispatcher had to physically come to Twisp to answer the phone, said Worden. The microwave system will carry communications for first responders such as law enforcement, fire districts, EMS, utilities and public works. The changes do not affect radio and TV broadcasts, cell phone towers or Internet transmissions, which also have towers on McClure, said Worden. The county has been studying ways to create a modern, highly functional system to handle daily and emergency traffic for all types of emergencies since 2012, from “several collisions and house fires at once — or the whole damn valley’s on fire,” said Worden. Two summers of catastrophic fires and debris slides made the upgrades more urgent. The $3 million microwave project is being paid for primarily through grants. The majority of that — $1.85 million — is from the Washington State Military
The intense heat of fires damaged communications infrastructure, even melting underground wires. Photo by Marcy Stamper
Department disaster recovery account. The McClure upgrades are supported by a $400,000 grant from the state and the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department. Still on the county’s wish list is a larger dispatch facility, an emergency operations center, and modernized information technology that could run all county functions. Worden said they are taking their time to accurately define their needs and the cost of such a large project. “We have needs but it’s important not to rush — we have to take our time and do it right,” said Worden.
Microwave transmission will replace physical wires, which were vulnerable to damage from fires and other natural disasters because they ran underground, across bridges or in the air. Photo by Marcy Stamper
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Twisp public works employees install a new generator next to a town well house on LIncoln Street . Photo by Ann McCreary
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no longer powerless Twisp has acquired four generators to keep emergency services, communication going BY ANN MCCREARY
HE devastating Carlton Complex Fire in 2014 left much of the Methow Valley without power for 10 days, greatly hampering the ability of local government officials and emergency managers to respond to the ongoing crisis. In the wake of that disaster, Twisp officials turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for generators to ensure that communications and essential services like municipal water could be maintained in future emergencies. In October 2016, more than two years after the fire, four generators from FEMA finally arrived and were installed. “We’ve been working solidly on pushing this through. One thing I’ve learned being in office, is that things just take time,” Twisp Mayor Soo
Ing-Moody said when the generators were delivered. Two large generators were installed next to town well houses on Marble Street and Lincoln Street to power well pumps and ensure that Twisp’s water system remains operable if electricity is lost, said Andrew Denham, the town’s public works director. Another generator was installed behind Town Hall, and the fourth generator is a mobile unit that is stored at the public works headquarters in Twisp and would be used to power the Lookout Mountain booster station that sends water uphill to residences of that neighborhood. The cost of the generators, including installation of concrete pads and wiring, is about $184,500, Denham said. FEMA required a 25-percent match for the generators, which was shared by Twisp and the state Department of Emergency
Management. Part of the town’s match was provided through labor to prepare the sites for the generators. “We’re obviously relieved that we got through another fire season without having them,” said Ing-Moody. “We’ve always been prone to outages, but when we have extended outages comingled with disasters, these generators would be a lifesaver for us and our ability to respond.”
REPLACING TOWN HALL
In another initiative to better prepare for future emergencies, Twisp is moving forward with plans to replace the current Town Hall building on Glover Street with a new civic building that will house town offices and serve as a command center for the entire valley during disasters like the Carlton Complex or Twisp River fires. The town has selected Architects West of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to design the new civic building as well as a new public works shop to replace a shop that adjoins the current Town Hall building. The state Legislature allocated $1 million to Twisp to begin work on the projects, which are expected to cost about $2.7 million. Plans call for razing the current
Town Hall building, which is plagued with structural and functional deficiencies, including cracked walls, inadequate fire and security features, poor ventilation and water damage. After the Carlton Complex Fire roared through the valley in 2014, knocking out power and communications, town officials realized how inadequate the facility is to meet the community’s needs during a disaster. The building had no generator to provide backup power and was closed during much of the disaster. The mayor worked out of her home during the disaster and the town’s police officers “did most of their work in their vehicles … we couldn’t use the building for even charging radios,” Ing-Moody said. “During a time of crisis the inability of our municipal facility to operate, provide communication and function as an emergency incidentcommand center was a significant detriment to the town’s ability to effectively respond,” she said. “The incident-command portion [of the new civic building] is going to be pretty important to us in planning … to capture the needs for communication and emergency management coordination,” Ing-Moody said.
Fire Wise Landscaping Design • Install • Maintenance Building Site Consultation and Restoration Native Seed • Native Plants email@example.com • Rob Crandall 509-341-4060 • 39 •
U.S. Forest Service entomologist Connie Mehmel checks an insect trap for bark beetles in the Carlton Complex Fire area. Photo by Sam Liebl
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Battling the Beetle invasion Forest Service study looks at bark beetle infestations in wake of Carlton Complex Fire BY SAM LIEBL
ATCHET in hand, Connie Mehmel prowled among the charred trunks of ponderosa pines, looking for the distinctive traces of tree-eating insects. She spotted a penny-sized pile of wood shavings in a crevice of a tree’s bark. A couple whacks of her hatchet revealed an inch-long grub with a broad head. “It’s a flatheaded wood borer,” Mehmel declared. After describing its life cycle and woody diet, Mehmel popped it into her mouth. “A delicate, nut-like flavor,” she said with a huge grin. But Mehmel was really on the lookout for bark beetles. Mehmel is an entomologist and one of the lead scientists working on a three-year study of the impacts of the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. The project seeks to understand how thinning and prescribed burning prior to the blaze affected the burn’s severity, tree mortality, and ensuing bark beetle attacks. While the data will not be compiled and analyzed until 2017, Mehmel is hopeful that the information collected by her team will yield lessons for forest managers in the Methow Valley and across the western United States, who must decide how to allocate strained budgets in the face of worsening fire seasons and more extensive bark beetle outbreaks. On this hot August day we are walking in the upper reaches of Vinegar Gulch, a drainage that joins
the Methow River just upstream of the town of Methow. The Carlton Complex Fire burned this gulch and hundreds of thousands of acres elsewhere. Fortuitously, many of those acres had undergone fuel treatments, which is a broad term for the various ways that forest managers reduce the
Pitch secreted by a ponderosa pine traps a bark beetle. Photo by Sam Liebl
Mehmel holds bark beetles that she has pulled out of an insect trap. Photo by Sam Liebl
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quantity of combustible material in an area. Those treatments include thinning, prescribed burning, and thinning followed by burning. By randomly sampling areas that had and had not received fuel treatments prior to the fire, Mehmel and her U.S. Forest Service colleagues David Peterson, Darci Dickinson and Susan Prichard realized that it would be possible to do a detailed analysis of how effective those treatments were at improving the resilience of the forest. “As traumatic as this was, we might as well take advantage of the situation while we’ve got it,” said Mehmel
AN INTERESTING CASE
For these scientists, this fire was
“Just like you or I are more susceptible to bacteria when we are unhealthy, if a tree becomes weak, its ability to produce defensive chemicals is compromised.” Connie Mehmel
an especially interesting case because a preliminary study showed that fuel treatments often had no effect at all: In only 15 percent of fuel-treated areas did thinning and/or prescribed burning clearly “sustain low-fire behavior and effects by keeping intensity and rates of spread low,” according to the September 2014 report. That early assessment of fueltreatment effectiveness “suggested that fuel treatments were not necessarily effective when aligned with wind-driven fires in the Carlton Complex event,” said Prichard. “We hope that the findings of our study will help inform strategic placement of fuel treatments — even during extremely hot, dry and windy events such as we had in the Carlton Complex event.” The group secured funding from the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and Western Wildland Environmental Threat Assessment Center (WWETAC). Within a year of the fire they had established over 200 test plots and began collecting data. “We had all studied aspects of the 2006 Tripod Complex fires,” Prichard said. “The four of us were interested in evaluating how fuel treatments fared in an even more extreme wildfire event, and the WWETAC funding enabled us to take an integrated approach to our assessment of fuel-treatment effectiveness — from burn severity and tree mortality to assessments of post-fire insect and disease agents to post-fire vegetation recovery.”
In order to get a full picture of the fire’s effects, they decided to collect
A flathead wood borer wiggles on Mehmel’s fingertips. Photo by Sam Liebl
data over three years. This was especially important in gauging the effects of bark beetles, said Mehmel. Trees that survive the initial blaze are often weakened and susceptible to attacks by those tiny insects. Whereas a healthy tree can create defensive chemicals to fend off bark beetles, weakened trees may not have the energy to do so.
“Just like you or I are more susceptible to bacteria when we are unhealthy, if a tree becomes weak, its ability to produce defensive chemicals is compromised,” said Mehmel. Bark beetles are tiny. Though she has spent years studying these bugs in the field, it still took Mehmel a couple minutes to find one amid the dozens of beetles, moths and flies
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drowned in bright red antifreeze at the bottom of an insect trap her team had set up in the burn area. Smaller than a house fly and inconspicuously black in color, bark beetles appear to be an unlikely culprit. The more insidious looking flatheaded wood borer would be much easier to blame. Yet the wood borer is easily overwhelmed by the defenses of a living tree. So it relies on bark beetles to do the killing for it. Trees fight back against bark beetles not only by producing defensive chemicals, but also by using brute force. Mehmel pointed out a still-living ponderosa pine in the burn area that she said was under attack. Coagulated sap oozed from dozens of holes on the tree trunk. As a bark beetle chews its way into a tree’s sugary phloem, the tree will try to flush it out with sap, much like our own bodies try to flush out wounds by bleeding. A tree may be successful. In one of the tree’s scabs, a minuscule black leg protruded from the tip. It was a bark beetle, caught like a specimen in yet-to-be fossilized amber.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
But even healthy trees can be overwhelmed by bark beetles. “Sometimes they just have strength in numbers,” said Mehmel. “They can have big successful broods. Especially if they successfully attack a tree that is large, they will have thousands of babies. And if you have a lot of trees like that, you will get lots of bark beetles. And then they have to go somewhere. That next generation comes out and they will first attack weakened trees if there are some in the area. But if there are enough of them they will start attacking healthy trees.”
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By weakening large numbers of trees, fires can give rise to bark beetle outbreaks that can threaten the trees that went unscathed. Other disturbances, such as blowdowns or flooding, can create prime habitat for bark beetles, too. Mehmel pointed to a ravine where the fire spared a small stand of Douglas fir. “See those trees over there, a nice area of trees that survived the fire. They’re alive. But see the color changing in their needles? It could be beetles,” she said. When Mehmel uses words like “attack” and “defense,” and refers to bark beetles as “tree killers,” it’s easy to imagine the forest as a battlefield in which the small black bugs are malevolent invaders marauding innocent forests. One can forget that bark beetles are a crucial part of forest ecology. They keep the cycle of life and death turning. After decades of fire suppression across the West, many forests have become crowded with timber. With too many trees competing for too little sun, water and soil, stands have become weak and susceptible to insect attacks. The tree-killing bark beetles may be the forest’s way of restoring balance. “Bark beetles are doing what fire used to do,” Mehmel said. As is happening in the Methow Valley two years after the Carlton Complex Fire, these natural forces — fire and beetles — are working together to usher in a new chapter of decomposition and growth in this dry coniferous forest. Until the impact of bark beetles and other data are tallied when the study ends next year, the outcome of this complex human-fireinsect interaction will not be fully known.
Mehmel checks the crowns of trees for fire damage. Photo by Sam Liebl
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looking for a home on the range Methow Valley cattle ranchers lost stock and grazing lands to fire, but are recovering with state and Forest Service help
repair fences and watering structures damaged by both fire and subsequent flooding. Faced with the loss of those traditional grazing lands, ranchers have had to adjust the way they do business.
CHESS GAME BY ANN MCCREARY
FTER losing more than half his cattle in the Carlton Complex Fire almost two-anda-half years ago, Vic Stokes is slowly working on rebuilding his herd, his ranch and his cattle business. “It’s going to take some time,” Stokes said this fall. “I like to be positive and say we got a lot done, and have a lot more to do.” Stokes’ cattle were grazing on federal and state lands in Finley Canyon and South Summit in July 2014 when the wildfire raged through, killing 215 cows and calves — about 60 percent of his herd. A fourth-generation rancher, Stokes said the wildfire and resulting losses were unlike anything his ranching family had ever experienced. But he maintains his upbeat outlook. “Actually, we’re in better shape than I thought we would be at this time,” said Stokes, whose ranch is southeast of Twisp. “I figured it would take five years to come close to getting the ranch back together to pre-fire conditions.” He’s slowly rebuilding his herd from his own stock, and by the end of 2016 was getting close to having two-thirds of the herd he had before the fire.
Craig Boesel lost 11 head of cattle to the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014 and 14 in 2015. “I was the one that got burned both last year and the year before,” he said. Several cows died in the Volstead drainage near Beaver Creek campground in the Carlton Complex Fire, and several died afterward due to heat and smoke exposure, Boesel said. Last year, Boesel’s cattle were grazing near Beaver Lake north of Loup Loup Pass when fire broke out, killing 14 cows. That fire moved down to the Okanogan Valley and became part of the Okanogan Complex Fire, he said. “That unit didn’t burn in 2014, then last year it burned, so we didn’t use it this year,” said Boesel, whose ranch is on Bear Creek Road south of Winthrop. “Two units that got burned in the Carlton Complex, they allowed us to go back out on in August and September this summer.” For ranchers in the Methow Valley like Stokes and Boesel, among their biggest challenges is coping with the extensive damage to grazing lands caused by the Carlton Complex, Little Bridge Creek and Falls Creek fires in 2014, and the Twisp River, Lime Belt and Beaver Lake fires in 2015. Many federal, state and private grazing lands have been off-limits since July 2014 to allow the scorched or eroded land to recover, and to
The majority of cattle grazing in the Methow Valley takes place on U.S. Forest Service land. The Forest Service permits grazing on about 350,000 acres in the Methow Valley — from Black Canyon north on the west side of the Methow River, and from Benson Creek north on the east side, said Dean McFetridge, range specialist for the Methow Valley Ranger District. The 2014 and 2015 fires impacted 10 Forest Service grazing allotments, two of them vacant at the time of the fires, McFetridge said. “Out of the total 254,617 acres within the [impacted] allotments, 112,086 burned, which is 44 percent,” McFetridge said. Only the Finley allotment (where Stokes’ cattle died) is mostly within a high-severity burned area, McFetridge said. “The impacts to most allotments are a mosaic of burned and unburned, with some pastures with no fire impacts,” he said. To “rest” the pastures damaged by fire or erosion and allow them to recover, ranchers have been working with range specialists to evaluate where and when they can graze their cattle. “It’s been kind of a chess game of who goes where,” said Will Keller, range management specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation
Service (NRCS). Keller works with individual ranchers to develop sustainable grazing plans on private, state and federal lands. After the fires, range managers evaluated grazing lands to determine the extent of damage, and which areas needed to be rested to allow vegetation to regrow. “Providing rest to burned pastures and reintroducing cattle back into the burned area requires some modifications to the grazing systems,” said McFetridge. That has included changing the seasons that pastures are used, permitting fewer cows on the land, more monitoring of the impacts, installing temporary electric fencing, shorter grazing seasons, and trucking cattle, he said. “For all the permittees impacted by the fires, when Forest Service range required total rest, the permittee offset this loss of range with private and state lands or other Forest Service lands,” McFetridge said. In one case a cattle producer with a permit for the Little Bridge allotment, which burned in 2014, was shifted to an East Chewuch allotment. Another rancher who lost his state and private range in the Methow Valley was provided temporary grazing on a Forest Service allotment in Tonasket. “The unburned portions of some allotments most impacted by the fires were grazed in both 2015 and 2016. State land has become available to offset the loss of forage on Forest Service land or other burned lands,” McFetridge said.
GRAZING LANDS OPENED
In the aftermath of the Carlton Complex, Little Bridge Creek
A calf owned by rancher Craig Boesel unloads at Big Valley Ranch near Winthrop, one of the areas made available to cattle producers who lost grazing lands in wildfires. File photo by Laurelle Walsh
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and Falls Creek fires in 2014, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) opened grazing on lands previously off-limits, including Big Valley Ranch north of Winthrop on Highway 20 and Riser Lake in the Rendezvous area near Winthrop, both areas that had been used for grazing in the past. Boesel used the Big Valley Ranch for fall grazing in 2014, after working with WDFW to build perimeter fences and fences to protect riparian areas. He used it for summer grazing in 2015 and 2016 and may have access in 2017 if he can’t get back on his usual allotments. In August this year he was able to put cattle back on a couple of Forest Service allotments that burned in 2014, under an agreement that he install temporary electric fencing to keep cattle off the most damaged areas. And he’s kept cattle home to graze on irrigated hay fields “that we normally would have cut,” Boesel said. Boesel said he’s grateful for access to Big Valley to provide grazing for cattle displaced from their normal ranges, even though grazing fees are higher on WDFW land than Forest Service allotments ($11.48 per cow/ calf per month, compared to $2.11 per cow/calf per month), and there is added cost as a result of trucking cows to pasture. “I’m very appreciative of Wildlife [WDFW] giving us this opportunity. It would be a lot bleaker if it hadn’t been for that,” he said. “We were absolutely thrilled to be able to provide some alternatives to these producers. They basically had no place to turn,” said Dale Swedberg, Okanogan lands operations manager for WDFW. Some people aren’t thrilled to see cattle on wildlife lands that are not usually grazed, Swedberg said. “From my perspective they [cattle ranchers] are neighbors that maintain open space. If we can’t support neighbors that support open space, we’re not helping wildlife or people that support open space, and working lands are part of that open space,” Swedberg said.
Assessments of range conditions at the end of the 2016 grazing season showed promising recovery, even for
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Vic Stokes, who lost more than half his herd in the Carlton Complex Fire, is philosophical about rebuilding his business. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a rancher or homeowner or businessman, these things affect us all across the board.” File photo by Ann McCreary
some of the most severely burned areas, McFetridge said. After 2015’s record-breaking drought, there was good news in 2016 for the land and the cattle that rely on it. Average or above-average snowpack and a comparatively cool spring with adequate moisture gave recovery a much-needed boost. “In the areas that were lightly burned in 2014, the vegetation that provides livestock forage has fully recovered,” McFetridge said. “In the moderate- to high-severity burned areas, the open grasslands and more open forest areas are well on the way to recovery with a good grass response this year,” he said. “One of the most noticeable signs
of recovery is that grasses responded with abundant seed production in 2016. The shrubs have also responded well with a lot of growth in 2016,” he said. “I think the range has recovered remarkably well,” Stokes said. “There are some positive things about fire. They are good for recycling nutrients, and certain species certainly benefit. I look at some of the aspen groves and they’re coming back gangbusters.” However, he has had to stay off of the hardest-hit allotments — like Finley Canyon. “We may be off that another year,” Stokes said. “I have to be pragmatic about this. The land is pretty fragile
after a fire of that magnitude.” Stokes has grazed his cattle on his ranch’s alfalfa fields to compensate for the temporary loss of his traditional allotments, which means less hay to sell. He was able to use Forest Service and WDFW land as well on a more limited basis. Even in the Finley Canyon allotment, much of which burned at high severity, “the uplands are looking pretty impressive,” McFetridge said after a site visit in the fall. “Upland willow is quite abundant, fireweed is filling in where there wasn’t much vegetation, and there are large stands of yarrow. Pine grass [which grows in conifer forests] is also doing well,” McFetridge said.
One of the barriers to bringing cattle back on the burned Forest Service allotments is not waiting for land and vegetation to recover, but completing repairs to fencing and water developments — troughs filled by springs or creeks — that were damaged by fire or subsequent erosion. During the 2014 and 2015 fires, 35 miles of interior fence (separating pastures within allotments) were damaged by fire or erosion, but only about 5 miles have been repaired on the Methow Valley Ranger District, McFetridge said. A contract has been awarded to repair 4 miles of fence in a high-severity burn area by June 2017. Similarly, 37 water developments were damaged by fire or erosion, but “only a few have been repaired,” he said. “The last pasture we graze after five years might be because it took that long to get the fencing and water structures repaired,” McFetridge said. In some cases the Forest Service and ranchers have installed temporary electric fencing to protect vegetation recovery in more severely burned areas or riparian areas on allotments where cattle are being allowed to graze, he said. About 30 miles of fence on boundaries of active grazing allotments were damaged in fires, and about 25 of those miles belong to WDFW and DNR. Much of fence on state land has been repaired, McFetridge said. “It’s been really tough because so much of the infrastructure was destroyed,” said Keller. “WDFW and DNR were able to tap into FEMA [Federal Emergency Management
Helping in fire disaster recovery throughout Okanogan County and beyond.
Craig Boesel’s cattle have grazed at Big Valley Ranch on Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife land for the past two summers, after the Carlton Complex Fire damaged much of Boesel’s usual grazing allotments. File photo by Laurelle Walsh
Agency] money. Private land owners are working with the Farm Service Agency. If they are able to rebuild and turn in receipts, they get a percentage” of the cost of the repairs, he said. FEMA assistance was not available for the Forest Service, which has had to fund most repairs from the agency’s budget, McFetridge said. “It’s a process,” said Boesel. “Many ranchers are in that process where you don’t magically get all the fences built back. We build more fence each year.” Repairing fencing can be very expensive, Keller said. Depending on factors like terrain and extent of the damage, costs can run more than $20,000 per mile. CURRENT BOARD OF DIRECTORS: Jon Wyss (Brewster)-Chair Sharon Lukacs (Chelan)-Treasurer Patti Cockfield (Chiliwist)-Secretary Adrianne Moore (Twisp) Julie Muylleart (Winthrop) Scott Clark (Omak) Rebecca Meadows (Pateros) Kermit Rader (Omak) Rhonda Hinkley (Tonasket) Alex Boyd (Colville Tribe) Carlene Anders, Executive Director-(509)733-0318
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Stokes estimated that on all the federal, state and private grazing lands he put his cattle on, including his own property, about 300 miles of fencing was damaged. Working with the Farm Service Agency “is all cost-share, so the conundrum we [ranchers] run into is … it sounds really good up front and I don’t question that it will help us through these difficult times,” Stokes said. “But even if you use some of the wire and the steel posts again, it still takes time and effort and a fair amount of expense,” Stokes said. “You have to be careful how you jump into these programs.” Stokes said he continues “just plugging along” as he rebuilds his cattle
business after the wildfire. “It’s given me time to pause and think. I can fix a fence and worry at the same time,” he said with a laugh. Looking ahead, Stokes holds on to his positive outlook. “We’re going to have good fences, and from a cattleman’s standpoint we’re going to have good grasses,” he said. “I think of all the folks [impacted by the fires]. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a rancher or homeowner or businessman, these things affect us all across the board,” Stokes said. “I think the high point for me is there’s always a lot of help out there for folks. And I always appreciate a pat on the back and the continued support of the community.”
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Though morels can be fickle, new research confirms that morels emerge in prolific numbers following wildfires in the western United States and suggests that many places, including North Cascades National Park, could liberalize their harvest limits without risking harm to the fungi or the forest.
Photo by Max Larsen
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The link beTween morels and wildfires Popular mushrooms seem to proliferate in burned areas BY SAM LIEBL
ILDFIRE is a force of destruction, but from a mushroom picker’s perspective, it is also a source of abundance. As the weather began to warm last spring, local resident and professional mushroom hunter Max Larsen had already spent hundreds of hours researching which of the previous summer’s burn areas would produce heavy crops of morels, a fungi with a honeycomb texture and savory taste that is sought by gourmands worldwide. He had a folder with maps and access information ready to go when the first morels began to pop up in the melting snow. His diligence paid off: Larsen harvested over 300 gallons of fresh morels over the following three months. Some species of morels produce mushrooms sporadically in modest numbers each spring. Mushroom hunters refer to these as “natural morels,” and they include what are commonly referred to as blonde and white morels. But for pickers in the Northwest, like Larsen, the main quarry is the black morel, which fruits prolifically in conifer forests during the year following a fire. Because this mushroom can be harvested in commercially viable quantities and because it has a delicious flavor, fresh or dried, pickers can earn thousands of dollars, sometimes even an entire year’s income, by traveling south to north, from one burn area to the next, as the seasons change and these spongy spires erupt
from the charred ground. Freedom, time spent in the woods, and the potentially lucrative payoff drew Larsen to the industry. “I’m passionate about the earth. I like getting my hands in the soil — that’s when I feel most connected,” said Larsen. “I couldn’t see myself in a cubicle, and I’ve been working in food service since I could work. I see a lot of discontented people in the [Methow] Valley. I would rather live my life in the mountains and be dirty than work in a cubicle and be discontented.”
zone of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and oversees commercial and recreational mushrooms harvesting on U.S. Forest Service lands in the Methow Valley. “I’ve heard that in other places, where the mushrooms are of higher value than morels, that pickers are more cutthroat. I would say that the relationship between pickers is generally good. We have had no reports
of threats or vandalism,” said Nash. “Typically the biggest issue we have is that there is a lot of litter when [commercial pickers] are done, at areas where they park or where they have been picking.” The biggest source of conflict has been commercial pickers harvesting mushrooms in areas designated for personal use, said Nash. The 2015 season, which followed the 2014
This line of work has its drawbacks, however. “It’s a dodgy profession,” Larsen admits. Serious morel hunting requires walking steep, muddy terrain, often made more unstable by the previous year’s burn. The spring weather frequently brings rain and snow. Driving rough roads strewn with forest debris, Larsen punctured eight car tires this past mushroom season. Yet the greatest hazard Larsen has faced are fellow commercial pickers. He recalls looking for morels with his son on his shoulders when he came across a group of Russian commercial pickers. They pulled out handguns and told him to leave, said Larsen. “There is overt aggression between commercial pickers. People pull weapons and say, ‘Get out of here, this is our territory,’” he said. Larsen’s accounts of hostility between pickers differ from the experiences of Paul Nash, who is the timber management assistant for the north
Nancy Nash-Mendez harvests a hatful of tasty morels in 2015, following the Carlton Complex Fire. Photo courtesy of Paul Nash
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fires, drew large numbers of commercial pickers to the Methow. In anticipation of this influx, the Forest Service designated the Little Bridge Creek burn area a personal use area, which forbade commercial harvests and limited recreational pickers to 5 gallons per person per day.
After hosting so many for-profit mushroom hunters following the 2014 fires, Nash and his Forest Service colleagues anticipated a big mushroom harvest in the Methow this year, following the 2015 fires. Despite the large new burn areas, relatively few mushrooms emerged in the spring of 2016. Consequently, the Forest Service was underwhelmed by the number of pickers who bought commercial permits or stayed at designated camps, which the Forest Service set up to concentrate the environmental impact. “We sold only around 250 permits for 2016, which wasn’t hardly anything compared to the previous year,” said Nash. “There were some mushrooms, but they were not distributed everywhere. Though it was a pretty big burn area, less than 500 acres really had enough to get the interest of commercial pickers.” Nash blamed the weather for this past season’s disappointing harvest. “It was such a dry spring. Our snow dried out really quickly. We were getting 80-degree days in April. Mushrooms can’t start growing until the snow’s gone, and then they need a certain soil temperature. In many places, by the time the soil reached that temperature, it had already dried out,” he said. Though morels can be fickle, new research confirms that morels emerge in prolific numbers following wildfires in the western United States and suggests that many places, including North Cascades National Park, could liberalize their harvest limits without risking harm to the fungi or the forest. The study, published in the October 2016 volume of the journal Forest Ecology and Management, looked at a meticulously mapped section of Yosemite National Park that burned in the 2013 Rim Fire. The researchers counted every morel that emerged from early May to the end of July. • 50 •
Morels emerge in prolific numbers following wildfires, and are more likely to grow in severely burned areas, research shows. Photo courtesy of Max Larsen
Based on the mushrooms they found, they estimated an annual crop of over 1 million mushrooms for the entire national park. Furthermore, they estimated that the mean crop in post-fire conifer forests across North America is near 795 morels per acre.
LOOK FOR CLUSTERS
The findings also suggest where mushroom hunters should look for morels. The study confirmed what morel pickers have long known: that the mushrooms tend to cluster together. “Spatial correlation among morel-occupied plots was apparent at scales up to 7.0 meters, and was strongest at scales less than 3.0 meters,” according to the study. Translation: If you find a morel, you are most likely to find more within nine to 10 steps from that first mushroom. The study also found that morels are more likely to emerge in severely burned areas. The researchers found no morels in areas in which less than half of the surface was burned, and the “overwhelming majority or morel-occupied plots were 100 percent burned.” This finding aligns with Nash’s personal experience in the Methow Valley. Prescribed burns do not produce morels as reliably as wildfires, he said, and prescribed burns conducted in the spring are far less likely
Morels are valued by gourmands worldwide for their savory taste. Photo courtesy of Max Larsen
to yield morels than prescribed burns done in the fall because, according to Nash, “it appears that you need a fire that consumes most of the soil and duff layer, and our spring burns often are not hot enough to do that.” Despite the research done by the authors of this recent study and by other scientists, the life cycle of the morel and why it fruits en masse following fire remain unknown. Mushroom hunter Larsen suspects that morels emerge after fire because their underground roots, known as mycelia, survive the fire and are “first at the party” as organisms begin to recolonize the burnt soil. Similarly, the authors of the Yosemite study propose that this underground network survives fire, but point to “duff consumption, vegetation mortality, and fire-induced soil
chemistry changes” as the reasons morels emerge after fire. Nash posits a third theory: that only the morel’s spores survive fires, and from those seed-like grains new mushrooms grow.
Despite the mystery surrounding the relationship between morels and fire, all of these experts agree that the mushrooms can be sustainably harvested in quantity. The study’s authors conclude that Yosemite National Park’s limit of one liter per recreational picker per day could be quadrupled to over one gallon with “no chance of negatively affecting morel populations or future mushroom production.” They note that credible estimates, such as their findings in Yosemite, are needed to
evaluate whether the mushroomcollection ban in North Cascades National Park is reasonable. Yet these experts also agree that morels harvests should be limited. “I really don’t know what levels are appropriate. We haven’t seen enough fires return in the same place to know if heavy picking is inhibiting the ability of the mushrooms to be sustainable on the landscape. We haven’t been able to grow morels commercially because we don’t understand the conditions that make it work,” said Nash. “Our permits ask commercial pickers to leave a third of the mushrooms out there so they can finish their life cycle and spread their spores. That’s hard to control and it’s an honor system. We are trying to do the best we can with the knowledge we have.”
Larsen’s young son Walter helps out on the hunt for morels. Photo courtesy of Max Larsen
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Larsen shares a similar sentiment. “I think there should be limits imposed because the commercial picking is so big now. Many of those pickers are not leaving any organism to run its course,” he said. The abundance of post-fire morels is a reminder that there is a bright side to letting nature run its course, even if that course is destructive.
“Spatial correlation among moreloccupied plots was apparent at scales up to 7.0 meters, and was strongest at scales less than 3.0 meters,” according to the study. Translation: If you find a morel, you are most likely to find more within nine to 10 steps from that first mushroom.
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fires, floods and fish Our native species are remarkably adaptable to natural catastrophes BY M A R C Y S TA M PE R
EEING river boulders streaked red with retardant, the water running so thick with mud and sediment that it resembles chocolate pudding, and burned trees mounded against the river banks, and it’s hard not to see a catastrophic fire as a catastrophe for fish, too. Wildfires and the mud and debris slides that often follow them can be devastating to fish in the short run. But biologists have found that native populations of salmon and trout are actually well adapted to these disturbances. In fact, fire can enhance their habitat by creating protected pools and gravel beds, connecting rivers with floodplains and side channels, according to Jennifer Molesworth, a fish biologist and the Methow subbasin liaison with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “There’s a diversity of habitats for fish,” she said. “When we think about gravels and wood — where does that messiness come from? It doesn’t just arise out of the air — it usually comes from disturbance. And the way these habitats are maintained is actually
through disturbance.” Fires are a natural disturbance on the landscape and, particularly in dry forests like the Methow Valley and the east slopes of the Cascades, they can create high-quality fish habitat, according to Gene Shull, district fish biologist with the Methow Valley Ranger District.
REBOUNDING FROM CALAMITY
There’s no doubt that fish die in fires. During a fire, temperatures, especially in smaller streams, can rapidly increase and reach lethal levels, said Shull. In addition, heavy smoke and ash can affect stream chemistry, killing fish and other aquatic organisms. Fish also die from the onslaught of sediment and debris carried by a mudslide. Debris slides are common in the aftermath of a fire because there are no roots left to hold soil in place on burned slopes and the charred soil can no longer absorb water. These high sediment levels can clog gills and cover spawning habitat or fill in rearing pools where young fish hide, said Shull. But the fish population can rebound from these calamities and
Native fish species have been dealing with all kinds of major disasters forever — not only fires, but also earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and drought. Jennifer Molesworth, fish biologist and Methow subbasin liaison with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation
Fish in the Chewuch River have benefited from the increase in wood after the Tripod Fire. Photo courtesy of Gene Shull
even surpass their numbers before a fire from enhanced habitat diversity, said Molesworth. Fish also benefit because a fire can add nutrients to rivers and streams. These nutrients are essentially transferred from the forest to the river, said Molesworth. The nature of the salmon life cycle itself helps the fish flourish in a fireprone ecosystem. Because several of the fish species that spend part of their life in the Methow watershed — spring Chinook, summer Chinook and steelhead — migrate to the ocean, many of these fish were hundreds of miles away when fires struck, said Molesworth. “These things can happen overnight, but because fish are not there all the time and they spread out over multiple year classes, it’s a really good strategy for recolonization in a landscape that has a lot of disturbance,” said Molesworth. There is also considerable diversity among individuals in a single fish
species, which means impacts are staggered, even within a generation. Individual fish may spend three years in the ocean, but others won’t return to spawn for four or more years. Still others wait up to seven years before they make their journey to the ocean, and some never to go to sea at all, said Molesworth. Different species spawn at different times of year — steelhead spawn in the spring, spring Chinook spawn in August and September, and summer Chinook spawn in September and October. So, while it’s hard for the fish that return to spawn soon after a fire, those that come back the following year tend to do much better, said Molesworth.
Bull trout may be particularly vulnerable to wildfire because they don’t migrate to the ocean and are apt to be clustered in a more limited area, according to a presentation at a
Retardant drops used to combat the Twisp River Fire stained rocks in the Twisp River red with iron oxide. The ammonia in retardant can be lethal to fish, algae and invertebrates. Photo by Marcy Stamper
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When trees burn in riparian areas, it can have mixed effects on fish. With less shade, the insects that fish eat proliferate, but warmer water creates problems for fish. Photo by Marcy Stamper
2015 workshop about the effects of wildfires on salmon, trout and other aquatic life in the Northwest. Still, many bull trout swim to larger rivers like the Columbia, where they grow bigger and stronger before returning to the upper Twisp and Chewuch drainages, said Molesworth. Direct fish mortality after a fire is fairly limited, although redds (where fish lay their eggs) can be smothered by debris, said Greg Knott, an environmental consultant and a board member with the Cascade Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group. Nevertheless, in the long term, fires and floods change sediment in valuable ways, both in size and composition, he said. Because there is less water being taken up by vegetation after trees die, stream flows are higher, which helps move all this debris throughout the system, said Knott. Water levels tend to be elevated for about five years following a fire, said Shull. “Fire and fish have coexisted for a
long time,” said Knott. In fact, Molesworth said, native fish species have been dealing with all kinds of major disasters forever — not only fires, but also earthquakes, volcanoes, floods and drought.
Salmon born in rivers in the Methow typically spend the first year or two of their lives here. These juveniles need protected pools with wood and tangled roots where they can hide from predators, often in new side channels or beaver ponds. Salmon-recovery efforts have spent millions of dollars adding wood to rivers, but a wildfire deposits this wood naturally. Leaves that fall into the river fix nitrogen, which nourishes plants. With less shade in burned riparian areas, the extra sunlight also helps with nutrient production. Post-fire erosion often brings a variety of sediment, like gravel, cobbles and even boulders and large trees, said Shull. These larger pieces
RETARDANT AND OTHER CHEMICALS While rivers and fish are adapted to “natural” disturbances like wildfire, chemicals used to fight fires are not a natural environmental input. Nevertheless, fire-retardant chemicals have been a part of the equation since the 1950s, when firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service began using them as a regular part of their arsenal. Long-term retardants contain about 85 percent water and 10 percent fertilizer (ammonia, plus phosphate or sulfate ions), according to a Forest Service fact sheet. The remaining 5 percent includes an ironoxide colorant, a gum or clay thickener, and substances that inhibit corrosion. Because of the ammonia in the fertilizer, a single retardant drop directly into a stream can cause a concentration of ammonia high enough to be lethal to fish and other aquatic organisms, according to the Forest
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Service. In a fast-flowing river, the lethal effects tend to be short-lived because the ammonia is quickly diluted, but dropping retardant in a stagnant pond causes persistent toxic levels. Ammonia is also toxic to algae and invertebrates. The corrosion inhibitor (yellow prussiate of soda, also known as sodium ferrocyanide) has been shown to be highly toxic to fish and amphibians even in small concentrations, especially upon exposure to sunlight, according to a study by scientists with the Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Foam fire suppressants contain strong detergents, which can suffocate fish because they interfere with the ability of gills to absorb oxygen. Although firefighters attempt to avoid riparian areas when using chemicals, accidental contamination of streams and
lakes has occurred, especially from aerial applications. Major toxic events connected with retardant are reportedly relatively uncommon. One fire-retardant drop in the North Fork of Gold Creek probably created lethal conditions along half a mile of the creek, said Gene Shull, district fish biologist with the Methow Valley Ranger District. During the Twisp River Fire, there were two fire-retardant drops that partially hit the Twisp River, which probably killed some fish. The Forest Service has no estimate of the extent of the impact, said Shull. An accidental drop in another Washington stream in 2001 resulted in a large fish kill, according to the Forest Service and USGS. After Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service, in the mid-2000s
the agency was required to analyze the environmental effects of fire retardant. Updated Forest Service rules now prohibit retardant drops in waterways or where there are threatened or endangered species, and inadvertent drops must be reported and remediated. Retardants pose a more serious threat to frogs and other amphibians, which have thin, moist skins that readily absorb these chemicals, according to Peter Morrison, a conservation scientist with the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop. Exacerbating this vulnerability is the fact that many amphibians have restricted geographical ranges or live in microhabitats. As a result, unlike salmon, which are spread over hundreds of miles, a single accident could devastate an amphibian population, according to the Forest Service and USGS.
increase spawning habitat and add variety to stream channels. That’s exactly what happened about a month after the Carlton Complex Fire, when a localized rainstorm launched disastrous flooding and mudslides in several normally tiny creeks, carrying major debris slides into the Benson Creek/Finley Canyon watershed, as well as Beaver Creek and Fraser Creek on the Loup. The torrent of mud probably killed a lot of juveniles, but offspring of salmon that spawned upstream of the flooded areas will encounter good conditions the following year, said Molesworth. With less shade along a stream, water temperatures initially go up and chemical changes in the water can reduce the number of insects available for fish to eat, said Shull. Eventually, with more sunlight hitting the water, insects can proliferate, although this benefit may be canceled out by an increase in fine sediment, which has a negative effect on aquatic insects, said Shull. Insects tend to rebound fairly quickly once sediment levels stabilize, he said. Biologists don’t have estimates on the extent of fish kills from the Carlton Complex Fire, but believe the impact of post-fire debris flows on summer Chinook that were spawning in the Methow was substantial, said Shull. When fire is less severe, there appear to be fewer impacts to fish and creeks. For example, in the Twisp River Fire, there were areas of low to moderate burn in several creeks, but biologists have not seen any direct effects on the waterways or fish, said Shull.
large trees. In one area, a landslide dammed the river, creating prime new habitat and new underground springs that bubble with the extracold water fish like, said Molesworth. The habitat has also attracted ducks, beaver and moose. “The hillside came down, it muddied up the river, and it added all kinds of sediment,” said Molesworth. “But it’s actually a creative process. A landslide delivers a whole new river, with all the different classes of material.” The fires and landslides have had significant positive impacts on fish habitat there, said Shull. “Habitat complexity increased markedly over a two-year period after the fire,” he said. Although bull trout supposedly don’t like sediment, Molesworth found they were drawn to the Chewuch creeks right away. Biologists found an increase in bull trout redds, said Shull. “The increase is not definitively related to the post-fire changes, but we believe it was a factor, suggesting how wildfires can be beneficial to streams and fish habitat,” he said. One factor that contributed to the healthy evolution in the upper Chewuch is the fact that it is a roadless area with no timber harvest or livestock grazing, so it was already highly functional and primed to benefit after the fires, said Shull.
Scientists take a broad view of these changes in the ecosystem. While fish face huge hurdles, particularly from dams and predators, the effects of wildfire can actually improve the chances for juveniles and for spawning in the Methow basin. The Methow watershed alone spans almost 1 million acres, and habitat for these salmon extends as far as the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean. When biologists measure the overall survival of salmon, they take a favorable view of numbers that may sound low to the rest of us. While a salmon redd contains 3,000 to 4,000 eggs, only about 800 fry hatch. Just 200 of those fish will survive their first year or two to migrate to the ocean. Ten of those fish reach adulthood, and two mature fish will return to spawn here. Biologists count these numbers as salmon replacing themselves, said Molesworth. “When you look at the whole picture, it’s a nice functional state, as opposed to a big boom and bust,” she said. “If you look at one spot on the planet, it might look really dire — or really great — but when you even it out over time, it’s like a diversified portfolio.” Similarly, the ecosystem is a dynamic process, said Molesworth. From the perspective of a fish biologist — or a fish — materials such as nitrogen and phosphorus that have
been tied up in an unusable form in the forest are released to the water after a wildfire, bringing a tremendous boost of productivity to the water. Decaying leaves can also contribute nutrients.
HOPING FOR FEWER FIRES
While wildfire is a natural part of this ecosystem, biologists don’t want to see devastating fires on a regular basis, since it takes time even for well-adapted plant and animal life to recover. Shull said aquatic and riparian habitats are often unsuitable or nonfunctioning for several years after a fire. Similarly, because of loss of vegetation along streambanks and debris flows after a fire, the water can become so muddy for an extended period that it can’t support fish. Instead, scientists hope that now that large sections of the forest have burned, wildfires will be smaller and more widely dispersed, allowing the beneficial effects to prevail. People will start to see the rivers — and the wildfire they support — recover, said Molesworth. “Beavers come in gangbusters after a fire — that’ll be something fun to watch,” she said. “One thing about this Carlton Complex is that it burned where people live. Our other fires have been higher up on the forest, so we haven’t been able to watch.”
THE LONG VIEW
Molesworth has witnessed the long-term effects of this process in the upper Chewuch River drainage near Thirtymile. Since 1994, when she first started conducting bull trout surveys in Lake Creek, she has seen straight, simple waterways morph into a complex, productive habitat. In the past 15 years, several wildfires in the upper Chewuch drainage (among them the Thirtymile, Tripod and Farewell) and subsequent mudslides have changed the river, which is now criss-crossed by a jumble of
Mudslides can be devastating to homes and infrastructure, but they help create beneficial fish habitat by adding sediment, gravel and woody debris. Photo by Marcy Stamper
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Winthrop in the winter: Westernization and an expanded winter recreation season are essential to the valley’s economy. Photo by Mandi Donohue
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an economy of scale Targeted economic-development efforts can take advantage of the Methow’s natural and human resources BY DON NELSON
WO summers of gut-wrenching fires, and one summer of subdued anxiety about more fires, have highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of the Methow Valley economy. The reasons that people still visit are essentially intact: the timeless scenery, the multi-season recreational opportunities, the Western romance of Winthrop, the relaxed atmosphere. Tourism has, in most respects, made a healthy recovery and in fact is on the upswing. Some segments of the business community saw temporary bursts of profitable activity as firefighting personnel populated the valley, and rebuilding called for experienced contractors. At the same time, the fires took a heavy toll on an already-tight housing market, exposed gaps in our communications systems and shortcomings in our overall preparedness for emergencies, and stretched community resources as volunteers and nonprofit organizations ramped up recovery and rebuilding efforts. For those reasons, and others of a more enduring nature, “business resiliency” is one of four priority action areas that have been identified by Methow Valley Long Term Recovery (MVLTR) — along with housing, readiness and communication. MVLTR, a community-based
nonprofit, was established after the 2014 fires to help coordinate the valley’s responses to fire-related challenges. In 2016, the organization commissioned a study of the valley’s housing affordability and availability to help develop a strategy for meeting housing needs.
STRENGTH AND DIVERSITY
Detailed disaster plans, back-up generators and post-disaster survival strategies are now the practicalities of preparedness for many valley businesses. That may not be enough to save the day if the Methow’s overall economy isn’t strong enough and diversified enough to absorb the body blows that might be delivered by another natural disaster, or by other forces in the overall economy. More than that, the valley’s economy needs to be self-sustaining, whether disaster threatens or not, and that probably won’t happen without intentional economic development. That’s the perspective of Hannah McIntosh, hired in 2016 as economic development coordinator at TwispWorks. The position was made possible through a grant from MVLTR. McIntosh will focus on identifying and implementing opportunities for economic recovery and resilience in the valley in response to the 2014 and 2015 wildfires — and as a baseline for future growth and stability. • 57 •
To that end, McIntosh has been collecting all the information she can find about the characteristics of the valley’s economy to establish a useful database for crafting strategies, and also has been talking to businesses and organizations throughout the Methow to get a sense of what they believe is necessary and would like to see happen. “We’ve gotten good data … we understand better than we have before where the peaks are” in the valley’s economy, McIntosh said. “There is a seasonality to our economy … we’ve come to rely on that [summer] peak,” said Don Linnertz, executive director of TwispWorks. “When incidents affect that peak season, it has significant impacts on our overall economy. We really get to live it and experience its implications.” Filling in the gaps is part of the solution. But creating an economy that, overall, is less dependent on seasonal effects will have more long-lasting value, McIntosh and Linnertz said. “Through understanding the major drivers in our economy we will be able to strengthen and protect them,” Linnertz said. “The barriers in our economy are not all necessarily related to fire.” McIntosh said that supporting more small manufacturing businesses, partnering in downtown revitalization efforts for Twisp, and looking for ways to take advantage of the valley’s abundant forest resources are among potential strategies. McIntosh’s research has revealed that an unusually high percentage of valley residents work out of their homes. But, Linnertz said, “our [communications] infrastructure isn’t hardened enough to support those kinds of jobs on a larger scale.” McIntosh said one high-priority strategy will be to develop a local investors network to help out entrepreneurs who need financial footing.
the past. The steady emergence of more winter activities — fat biking, snowshoeing and ice skating at the upgraded Winthrop Rink, for instance — is creating a second strong season. Hotel and motel taxes collected in Winthrop and throughout the valley have been setting monthly and yearto-date records for the past couple of years, she said — including in the winter months. “We were all about summer … now we’re almost a completely year-round economy,” Smith said. “We don’t have a down time anymore.” “The very best thing we can do is year-round openness,” Smith continued. “I would hope we can convince businesses to recognize that we are a year-round destination.” Westernized Winthrop is crucial to the valley’s long-term economy, Smith said, because there is so much competition for the dollars of tourists who are looking for a unique experience. “Westernization is our disaster planning,” she said.
Smith agrees that the biggest lesson that came out of the 2014-15 fires is the need for preparedness: “Recognizing that it may happen … and maybe again and again,” she said. “There’s no reason for us to be caught off-guard.”
SEARCHING FOR SUSTAINABILITY TwispWorks and MVLTR are working to ensure that being caught off-guard doesn’t happen. To support the “business resiliency” goal, some projects that are in the works include creating a workshop series for residents looking to change or grow their careers; providing business support classes and one-on-one work for businesses looking to take their operations to the next level; convening local leaders around opportunities in important industries like agriculture, forest products and small manufacturing; and investing in the Methow Made program in support of local producers. The hoped-for outcome of an
integrated economic-development effort and progress on the other MVLTR targeted action areas, McIintosh said, is “sustainable wages, a sustainable housing market, a sustainable child care system.” In the Methow Valley, the housing shortage and inadequate child care for working parents are major challenges no matter what else happens, McIntosh and Linnertz said. “If we are able to get things we’re doing on the ground … people who work here will be able to afford to live here, and have a little bit extra to deal with disaster if it comes … or to enjoy the richness of this place,” McIntosh said. The larger goals will drive the TwispWorks/MVLTR efforts. But even small, incremental improvements in the Methow’s overall economic infrastructure could create big opportunities for many valley residents, McIntosh said. “In our employment base, every job makes a difference,” McIntosh said.
Kristen Smith, marketing director for both Methow Trails, the organization that maintains the valley’s trails for Nordic skiing and summer activities, and for the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce, says statistics suggest that the seasonal nature of the valley’s economy is not as severe as in
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The Carlton Complex Fire created both problems and opportunities for local businesses. Photo by Don Nelson
From 2014 to now: a timeline A look at major events and developments over the past three years of dealing with fires and their consequences JULY
• A lightning storm and resulting strikes set off initial blazes around the valley. • Evacuations and road closures begin in what is being called the Carlton Complex Fire. • A Type 2 management team is assigned to the fire and a firefighters’ camp begins to spring up at the Methow Valley School District compound on Twin Lakes Road. • The Carlton Complex Fire expands into an unstoppable fire front that consumes about 123,000 acres in one day. • The entire Methow Valley loses electrical power because of damage to Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) transmission lines over Loup Loup Pass. Internet service and some telephone land lines are interrupted, and cell phone service is affected. Meanwhile, the fire has blasted over the hills east of the Methow Valley at a ferocious speed and descended in a firestorm on Pateros. • State highways 153 and 20 into the Methow Valley are closed, leaving Highway 20 to the west as the only way in or out of the valley by vehicle.
Burned-over areas began to recover naturally after the fires of 2014 and 2015. Photo by Mary Kiesau
• In one day, the Carlton Complex Fire has gone from less than 45,000 acres to nearly 168,000 acres. • Twisp is put on Level 2 evacuation alert as fires sweep over Balky Hill, Beaver Creek and Finley Canyon. • Highway 153 is re-opened to traffic. • The Carlton Complex Fire reaches 250,136 acres (390 square miles), making it the largest wildfire in Washington state history. • The PUD power line over the Loup is repaired, and electricity restored to most of Methow Valley.
• The Rising Eagle Road Fire, west
of Highway 20 between Twisp and Winthrop, burns more than 500 acres and destroys 10 homes. • Little Bridge Creek Fire starts west of Twisp. • Officials begin to compile information about fire-related losses as the basis for an application for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Local groups begin making plans for longterm recovery efforts. • Upper Falls Creek Fire starts near Falls Creek in the Chewuch River drainage area northwest of Winthrop. • FEMA approves disaster declaration
for public assistance to help repair public infrastructure damaged in the Carlton Complex Fire. But FEMA later denies a separate request for funds to help individuals. • The State Department of Commerce approves a $150,000 grant to help the Methow Valley and Okanogan County mount a marketing campaign to encourage tourism and draw visitors back to the region. • Torrential rains and resulting mudslides destroy or damage a dozen homes in the Benson Creek area, along Highway 153 between Twisp and Carlton, and on Frazer Creek along Highway 20. Three of • 59 •
the Wenner Lake dams, between Benson Creek and Finley Canyon, collapse. State highways 20 and 153 suffer mudslide damage and both are closed for repairs. • The Carlton Complex Fire is declared contained.
• Highway 153 between Carlton and Twisp is re-opened for traffic. • Claims are filed by 65 individuals against the state of Washington for damages caused by the Carlton Complex Fire; more join the lawsuit later. • The Okanogan County commissioners hold a public meeting to gather information regarding the management of the Carlton Complex Fire.
• Participants at a community meeting in Brewster call for taking steps to be better prepared for the next fire season, promote more local control and provide for better communication.
• Okanogan County commissioners press for more leeway to use local resources in forest and wildlands firefighting.
• DNR investigation points to damaged wheel on a utility trailer as the probable cause of Rising Eagle Road Fire. • Rebuilding begins on 42 homes lost in Carlton Complex Fire.
• DNR salvage logging in lower valley gets OK from the state.
• Rainstorm triggers flash floods, landslides on Texas Creek.
• Lightning-sparked wildfires burn in Black Canyon and northern Okanogan County. • Flash floods, mud hit Texas Creek property again. • Twisp River Fire explodes on Aug. 19 and quickly expands. Three firefighters —Tom Zbyszewski, Richard Wheeler, Andrew Zajac — are killed, and fourth, Daniel Lyon, suffers severe burns. • Fire threatens Twisp and Winthrop, which are under evacuation orders, and knocks out power to several hundred customers. • Co-op begins rebuilding Twisp River powerline.
• Twisp River Fire, now at more than 11,000 acres, is mostly contained. Meanwhile, more than 400,000 acres have burned in the Okanogan Complex Fire, eclipsing the Carlton Complex Fire as the largest in state history.
• County hears criticism, praise for fire response. • County, cities get FEMA aid to rebuild infrastructure, but individual assistance denied once again.
• County commissioners seek to create nimble response to wildfires. • Preliminary report on Twisp River Fire deaths offers more details of Aug. 19 events.
• Burned Area Emergency Response report summarizes impacts of Okanogan County fires including Twisp River Fire. • Gold Creek property owners sue DNR; seek compensation for Carlton Complex Fire damages.
• Post-fire rebuilding efforts move into second phase.
• Mudslides near Black Canyon close Highway 153. • At hearing including Congressmen Dan Newhouse of Washington and Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania, Okanogan County residents sound off on causes and responses to the fires of 2014 and 2015, and urge prevention of future catastrophic fires. • Warm weather turns streams loose, flooding roads and property.
• Sen. Maria Cantwell comes to Okanogan County to hear from local officials and responders about wildfires. • Local representatives of firstresponder groups and other organizations take part in an emergency preparedness exercise in Winthrop sponsored by Methow Valley Long Term Recovery Organization and Okanogan County Department of Emergency Management. • DNR report concludes that Twisp River Fire was caused by a tree contacting a powerline.
• Representatives from about 75 firefighting agencies gather to discuss plans for better communication and coordination.
• Mazama couple denies all claims in Rising Eagle Road lawsuit filed by insurance companies seeking to recover property losses. • Flash floods sweep through French Creek properties.
• U.S. Forest Service honors Twisp River Fire’s fallen firefighters at ceremony in Winthrop. • County will get improved emergency communications system.
OCTOBER The Rising Eagle Road Fire blew up in August 2014, burning more than 500 acres. Photo by Don Nelson
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• Twisp gets four new generators from FEMA.
Heather Dean of Pine Forest’s Firewise committee consults with logger Jerry Luce, owner of Western Processing from Montana. Luce specializes in what he calls “cosmetic logging” – thinning trees around homes. His crew spent five weeks in the fall thinning trees in Pine Forest, with work expected to continue in 2017. Photo by Ann McCreary
residential readiness The valley’s Firewise communities are aggressively working to make their properties safer from wildfire
BY ANN MCCREARY
HEN a logging company began cutting trees in the Pine Forest housing development in mid-October of 2016,
it marked a major milestone for Pine Forest property owners who have been working for years to make their community safer from wildfire. With its maze of narrow, winding roads, and houses tucked away on • 61 •
steep, densely wooded hills, Pine Forest has been recognized for years as a community that would be difficult to defend in a wildfire. The Rising Eagle Road and Little Bridge Creek fires in 2014 and the Twisp River Fire in 2015 came too close for comfort — the Twisp River Fire was stopped by a back-burn only about one-fourth of a mile from Pine Forest. Those close calls motivated concerned property owners to push for Firewise designation for Pine Forest, which the community achieved last year. The community’s Firewise strategies included a timber sale to thin trees, reduce fire risk and improve health of the forest. The timber sale was planned for 2015, but was put on hold because massive wildfires in eastern Washington produced a glut of salvage timber and drove down prices. In 2016 the market became more favorable and the logging operation was able to get underway, to the relief of community members who have been pushing for action. The logging was expected to be done in phases, and to continue in 2017. “Folks have been really anxious for it to happen,” said Heather Dean, chair of Pine Forest’s Firewise committee. “A lot of folks recognize that the forest can be much healthier if it is back to more natural density of trees … — the chance of their houses burning down will be significantly reduced,” Dean said. The logging project is expected to result in 75 to 100 truckloads of logs that will be delivered to mills in Darrington, Colville and Kettle Falls, said Jerry Luce, owner of Western Processing of Montana, the logging company hired for the job. As his crew worked on property adjacent to a house — felling trees, cutting off limbs and chipping wood — Luce said the property “will look almost like a park” when the work is done. “Compared to what it looked like two days ago, I think the owners will like it.” More than 80 percent of the 135 lots in the development were participating in the project, which is funded through the sale of the lumber. Pine Forest hired a professional forester in 2015 to identify and mark • 62 •
trees that needed to be cut because they were too close to other trees or homes, or were weakened by disease, beetles or structural problems. The trees to be cut were marked with green flagging so that property owners who didn’t want to participate — or didn’t want to lose particular favorite trees — could remove the flagging, Dean said. Loss of privacy and the ability to see other homes that were previously obscured by trees were the primary concerns of property owners who chose not to participate, she said. “Some of them like their trees and are willing to take the risk [of wildfire],” Dean said. Some owners whose neighbors aren’t participating have opted to remove even more trees on their property where it adjoins their neighbor to provide an extra buffer against fire. Even though some property owners chose not to participate, Dean said the thinning would make a difference. “Studies have shown if you have 65 to 70 percent participation it significantly reduces the risk of catastrophic fire,” she said.
Pine Forest property owners have recognized for years that the 520acre development was vulnerable to wildfire. A Forest stewardship program launched in the mid-1990s produced a plan aimed at thinning forests that were overstocked with trees by seven or eight times the desirable number. Over the years, Pine Forest has sought and received state and federal grants to implement its forest stewardship plan, including thinning, hand piling and prescribed burning on community greenbelts and private properties. Pine Forest was recognized in 2005 by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for its ongoing wildfire protection efforts. In 2014 Pine Forest received approval for a Forest Landowner’s costsharing project with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conduct fuels-reduction activities. The project was put on hold, however, because of the Carlton Complex Fire, and got underway in 2015.
The result of tree thinning is evident from the deck of a Pine Forest home. Photo by Ann McCreary
In addition to the timber sale that began in the fall of 2016, Pine Forest’s Firewise activities have focused on creating defensible space around homes, guided by assessments from the Okanogan Conservation District, Dean said. Even property owners who chose not to participate in the thinning are engaging in other Firewise activities, Dean said. “They recognize that fuelreduction efforts benefit everyone.” Work has included creating no-fuel zones around homes, screening vents and under decks and porches, moving firewood sheds away from homes, and replacing wood siding with metal cladding. Property owners are also working to reduce ladder fuels, such as keeping grass near homes cut short, thinning flammable shrubs such as bitterbrush, and limbing up trees. Okanogan County Fire District 6 officials met with Pine Forest property owners to discuss concerns about accessibility of roads for fire trucks and emergency vehicles, and conducted an exercise in Pine Forest in 2015. “They were able to see our trucks
on their roads … and see how big our trucks are,” said Cody Acord, interim District 6 chief. The district advised the residents on improvements such as pullouts that would provide better access. Many owners have also installed blue reflective address signs that are recommended by emergency responders. Dean said 44 properties had installed the reflective address signs in 2016, up from only eight the previous year. “Every weekend there’s Firewise activity going on here,” Dean said.
Pine Forest is one of four Firewise communities established in the Methow Valley during the past three years. The Liberty Woodlands Homeowners Association was the first community in the valley to receive designation as a Firewise Community in 2013. A forested, 60-acre residential development 11 miles west of Winthrop, The Woodlands, as it is commonly called, has conducted thinning projects through DNR cost-sharing
programs over the past four years. Although only three of the 60 lots in the development are occupied year-round, property owners “take pride in being good stewards of the forest,” said Gay Northrup, who leads the community’s Firewise activities. The Firewise work has included installing reflective address signs, moving gas tanks away from homes, mowing grasses and weeds along the roads, providing information about fire safety to people staying in nightly rentals, and an ongoing campaign of thinning and clearing away dead material, Northrup said. Community members are proud that their commitment to reducing fuels in The Woodlands helped the Methow Valley Ranger District obtain funding to conduct forest thinning and fuels-reduction work on Forest Service land adjacent to the development. The project received funding in part because of public support from local property owners and “because we’d been so effective at cleaning up our own properties,” Northrup said. Called the Lost Driveway project, the fuels-reduction work began in 2015 and continued into 2016. The project focused on the wildlandurban interface in the upper valley to reduce the likelihood of crown fires in the national forests and complement the efforts made by owners of adjacent private lands. “Several neighboring landowners have used the Firewise program to reduce risk on their own lands when wildland fire comes through,” said Meg Trebon of the Methow Ranger District. “They have invested time, labor and
funds to adapt their landscape to wildfire. These landowners recognize that fire in our area is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when,’ and they have changed their landscapes accordingly,” Trebon said.
Like at The Woodlands, work done by the Wilson Ranch Homeowners Association also helped the Forest Service acquire funding for the Lost Driveway project, said Jim Gregg, manager of the homeowners association. Wilson Ranch includes the Freestone Inn, 13 homes and 15 cabins. Gregg said he has pushed for fuels reduction-efforts over the past six years. “Because we’re in a forest environment that fire is a part of, I came on heavy with the homeowners. They really need to be active in this,” Gregg said. With help from DNR Landowner Assistance cost-sharing programs, the association has thinned trees and removed fuels. Forest Service wildfire specialists visited the property last year, and said the efforts would pay off during a fire, Gregg said. “They explained how… any fire that was crowning in the nearby area would most likely drop to the forest floor when it got close [to the Wilson Ranch development], because of the thinning,” he said. The proactive work by The Woodlands and Wilson Ranch to reduce fuels, and the Forest Service’s efforts to reduce wildfire risk on adjacent federal lands, is “an excellent example of a collaborative effort by private and public entities to reduce
the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the Methow Valley,” said Kirsten Cook, outreach coordinator for the Okanogan Conservation District. As of the end of 2016, the Lost Driveway project had completed thinning and burning slash piles on about 1,600 acres, including forests near the Woodlands and Wilson Ranch, said Jim Hink, fuels specialist for the Methow Ranger District. The project will continue in 2017 on another 900 acres in the upper valley, he said.
Like property owners in Wilson Ranch and The Woodlands in Mazama, Bob Rivard was uneasy about the state of overgrown Forest Service land next to his home in the Buttermilk Creek area off Twisp River Road. When he learned last year that the Methow Ranger District was planning a large forest-restoration project called the Mission Project in the Buttermilk and Libby Creek watersheds, Rivard wanted to make sure that the project — which includes thinning and fuels reduction — would help protect his community. The original proposed boundary of the project ran along a ridge above the area where Rivard lives, and he wanted the lines redrawn to include densely wooded Forest Service land adjacent to about 80 homes and cabins in the Buttermilk Creek area. Forest Service officials advised Rivard that having Firewise designation would improve the likelihood of funding treatments on adjacent federal forests, just as it had for the Firewise communities in Mazama. So Rivard, a former firefighter and
ABOUT FIREWISE Firewise Communities/USA is a national program that empowers neighbors to work together in reducing their wildfire risk. The program includes a network of more than 1,200 recognized Firewise communities around the country, who work to prepare and protect their homes against the threat of wildfire. Using a five-step process, communities develop an action
plan that guides their residential risk-reduction activities while engaging and encouraging their neighbors to become active participants in building a safer place to live. The five steps of Firewise recognition: • Obtain a wildfire risk assessment as a written document from a state forestry agency or fire department.
• Form a board or committee, and create an action plan based on the assessment. • Conduct a Firewise Day event. • Invest a minimum of $2 per capita in local Firewise actions for the year. • Submit an application to the state Firewise liaison. For complete information, visit www.firewise.org.
smokejumper, organized his neighbors, and the community met the criteria for Firewise designation in a record time of only nine days. The Buttermilk area had been threatened by the Little Bridge Creek Fire in 2014, and after the Twisp River Fire and firefighter fatalities of 2015 the community was ready to act, Rivard said. “We live in a fire environment, all of us,” Rivard said. “We needed to get something going.” The community’s commitment to becoming a Firewise Community helped convince the Forest Service to redraw the boundaries of the Mission Project to include federal forests adjacent to the Buttermilk community. Only about 10 percent of Buttermilk property owners are full-time residents. Rivard is continuing to work with owners to encourage ongoing fuels reduction activities including thinning, limbing up trees, and clearing brush. The community has also been working to eliminate dead-end roads and open up access roads to accommodate firefighting equipment and provide evacuation routes, Rivard said. In the year since Buttermilk was designated a Firewise community, thinning projects have gotten underway or been completed on 10 different properties, totaling almost 60 acres, Rivard said. Most are costsharing projects with DNR, but some property owners are conducting private logging operations, he said. Rivard said a state entomologist visited the Buttermilk area and identified properties where the forests were suffering from beetle infestations. “Drought and overstocked trees were making the trees vulnerable … the stress level was high and bugs were able to get in. Her suggestion was to log it. There were eight trees where there should be one,” he said. About 86 acres with insectdamaged trees will be logged in the Buttermilk area, he said. “The ‘L-word’ is really hard for some people,” Rivard said. “But a few folks have learned to see that their property is not correct and natural, and needs work to benefit themselves and their neighbors and forest health.” • 63 •
Local tree cutter Owen Almquist saws the tops off burned, dead trees on Ken Bevis’ property on Rising Eagle Road to create homes for cavity-dwelling critters.Photo above courtesy of Ken Bevis, right by Ann McCreary
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Helping nature along How one landowner went about restoring burned habitat around his home BY KEN BEVIS
UG. 1, 2014, was a fateful day for a ponderosa pine forest and rich shrub-steppe areas along the west side of the Methow River. The Rising Eagle Road Fire started on Highway 20 and tore across mixed bitterbrush, serviceberry and ponderosa pine, in bone-dry conditions with a strong wind pushing it. Terrain conspired with fuel and wind, and the resulting fire consumed the dense shrubs and killed nearly all of the trees across the hill slopes. Our house and property were in the center of this event and received a direct hit. The firefighters managed to save our home, but our beautiful natural habitats were severely impacted. The Rising Eagle Road Fire was just a small 600-plus-acre add-on to the massive Carlton Complex Fire that was still smoldering just across the valley. What happened is a microcosm of the vast impacts to lands across our landscape. How we have responded is our own story, but it may be instructive to others impacted by fire. I am a wildlife biologist who has worked in habitat management for over 25 years. Now what? Where once was a stand of well-stocked ponderosa pine with luxuriant shrubs, now stood grass, forbs, annual weeds and blackened snags. Two years later, the grasses and forbs are doing remarkably well. The floral bloom was spectacular in 2016 after our wet winter. Some plants are thriving and we have seen more of many species than before — things
like waterleaf and shooting star. Serviceberry are sprouting from root collars, as are the currant. Deer were scarce at first, but have returned to our hill and have munched many of the new woody sprouts back. The trees are dead, but not gone. Very, very few ponderosa pine seedlings have appeared, perhaps due to the timing of the fire or lack of seed. And weeds, including some new villains like tumble mustard and Russian thistle, are on the scene. What does “restoration” mean when the landscape is so dynamic and many species are obviously adapted to fire? Are there things we can do to help nature along? Can we restore parts of the habitat richness more quickly through our management actions? I think so. My goal is to help quickly re-establish a version of the rich shrub/forest habitats we had before the fire. Nature might get us there eventually, but I would like to see it in my lifetime! Here are a few observations and a description of what we have done, so far. • Most dead trees are left standing. Dead trees give life. Even after dying, the woody structure of a tree provides mulch for habitat and soil building. The woodpeckers had a great time in the first year after the fire, especially after six months had gone by. They tore big plates of bark off of the pine snags and ate the beetle larvae just under the black bark. We watched pileated woodpeckers, our largest woody species, come and whack foot-wide bark plates off of
Helicopters drop buckets of water on the Rising Eagle Road Fire, helping save the author’s home. Photo courtesy of Ed Stockard
the tree, and then proceed to feast on the beetle larvae exposed below. This year, they aren’t working as hard. I believe that’s because the shallow beetles are gone with the sweet cambium. Now the excavations are deeper and the woodpeckers are going after wood borers. The first woodpecker nest hole appeared this year, to my surprise. I thought it would take a few more years. I anticipate it will be five to 10
years after the fire before we see lots of excavations for nesting cavities, as it will take that long for much of the wood to soften enough for excavation. In nature, dead trees will appear as mortality events come and go on the landscape. Dead trees can stand a long time. This pulse of snags will be present in some form for a long time. I’m hoping the bluebirds and woodpeckers will still be nesting in my snags • 65 •
long after the trees we have planted reach up as tall green trees. A high wind event earlier this year snapped off quite a few of the new snags, so that should increase the number of snags that will get some heart rot to help the woodpeckers excavate. The broken-off trees present a very small safety hazard as most of the weight is now gone, so these can be left as habitat. • Planting. There is an obvious desire to plant something to help the recovery process along. It is always a best practice to plant locally adapted native species, as they will best survive and function in the local habitat. We have planted native trees and shrubs, both irrigated and not. Methow Natives, our wonderful local restoration contractor, grew and installed 135 drip-irrigated, cageprotected trees and shrubs in the vicinity of the house (but outside of the core Firewise area) and in strategic locations to enhance the future landscape. Native species selected include: serviceberry, chokecherry, mock
orange, aspen, ponderosa pine, wild rose, Douglas fir and a few larch. The goal is to get these plants established well enough that in about five years we can remove the irrigation. Cages may come off of some as soon as they are above deer-browse height (about 6 feet — our deer don’t seem to stand on their back legs very much). Other plants were acquired from the Okanogan Conservation District, both at the spring plant sale and at fire-relief giveaways. Each time it has been much appreciated. The plants have survived surprisingly well. These I used as replacements for mortality and as non-irrigated plantings. • Non-irrigated trees and shrubs. I planted approximately 25 nonirrigated ponderosa pine and a few Douglas fir. Each tree was carefully planted near the north side of a standing dead tree, with an earthen watering well to allow for dry-season survival watering. I also installed mulch and supplied shade from woody material or a rock pile on the south and west side.
Above, a pileated woodpecker pounds on a snag in search of bugs. A birdhouse on the snag provides critical habitat, and cages protect young trees (left of the snag) from browsing deer. Right, a tree swallow regards the world from a locally made “Nice Nests” birdhouse. Photos courtesy of Ken Bevis
Below, a serviceberry bush thrives inside a protective cage. Photo courtesy of Ken Bevis
A blackened tree stands in the midst of a spectacular floral bloom, produced by a wet winter, in May 2016. Photo courtesy of Ken Bevis
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It is hoped these micro conditions will help with tree survival. Hand watering will be minimal, and applied in only the driest weather to help survival until trees are established. After a few years with root mass developed, this shouldn’t be necessary. Chokecherry and elderberry were also planted in sheltered locations, either in a habitat pile or behind some shade. • Seeding. We tried seeding with native grasses on areas that burned particularly hot, or that were disturbed by trucks, such as along the powerline. The Methow Conservancy “seed mob” walked the powerline and spread seed in spring of 2015, and kids from the Little Star Montessori School also came out for a working field trip. Seeds were raked in after
A ponderosa pine seedling, planted in the shade of a snag, is surrounded by a shallow well for dry season watering. Photo courtesy of Ken Bevis
being applied and quite a bit of it has come up. The grass seed hasn’t produced very much, which could have been affected by the hot burn where the seed was put out. Moderate soil tilling or mixing may have been in order for the hottest burned areas. Due to the rich recovery of the native grasses and forbs, I’m not sure this step was necessary. • Topped snags. Dead trees give life. Standing snags provide perches, cavity sites and feeding substrate for many birds. When they fall over they can help with soil stability by acting as anchors and dams, feeding the soil as they decompose. Unfortunately the finer branches can be fuel if another fire occurs within a few years before they have decomposed. We intend to leave most of our snags standing, and the larger downed wood on site. We will pile many of the branches into habitat piles, removing a few smaller stems, and being ready with the saw to clear the road if trees block it. Some piles of excessive fine fuels will be burned in the snow. Fourteen snags were topped. I selected some of the largest dead pines scattered around in the burned forest. All work was done by a climbing arborist (Owen Almquist and Aaron Boley) under my direction from the ground. Tops were made to look jagged to mimic natural breakage, and to enable fungal work to go faster due to more surface area. About one-half to two-thirds of the remaining branches
were removed from each tree to help take weight off the top and reduce the possibility of the tree’s tipping over. These trees look entirely natural. I have placed much of the topped material into habitat piles. This active management should help the snags persist longer. A large part of snag dynamic has to do with weight above the ground. When a tree dies, the stems decay and the fine roots also die, thus reducing some of the stability for some dead trees. By removing the top, and a large proportion of the branches in the crown, we hope to ensure longevity by reducing the above-ground weight of the tree. • Habitat piles. Branches cut from the topped trees and some smaller material from cutting of smalldiameter trees have been made into habitat piles to provide cover for small wildlife such as chipmunks, snakes and ground-nesting birds. A habitat pile differs from a brush pile in that larger pieces of wood make up the lowest three to five tiers, with smaller material piled on top. This design means that interstitial spaces within the pile will persist. I planted a shrub within several of these piles to protect the shrub from deer browse and to create a green overstory on the pile in future years. Piles of larger material can last many, many decades. Areas with too much fine material had smaller branches (2 inches or less) piled and burned in the winter or early spring. Some of the fine material from the tree work went up in smoke too. • Nest boxes. We have installed about 30 nest boxes to provide cavity habitats for swallows, wrens and bluebirds. We have gotten a remarkable number of birds using these boxes. I use a simple bluebird-style box plan, made from 1-inch by 6-inch boards, with a larger roof and roughened interior door. Plans are readily available online. Patrick Hannigan at Nice Nests in TwispWorks has them, too. Boxes represent the cavities that don’t exist yet, and can provide critical nesting habitat for many species.
Children from Little Star Montessori School plant a young ponderosa pine tree during a field trip. Photo courtesy of Ken Bevis
• Weed control. We actively go after knapweed, both by hand and with non-persistent herbicide. Other
Branches cut from topped trees create a habitat pile to provide cover for small animals. Photo courtesy of Ken Bevis
weedy species, particularly mustard, is so abundant it may not be controllable now. Russian thistle is also targeted.
RESULTS SO FAR
The irrigated plants in the cages had remarkably good survival in the first year, with only three plants dying. I replaced them with potted bare root stock from the year before. I have a stash of plants for replacement that came from our plant purchases. The non-irrigated plantings had about a 20-percent mortality last year, most likely from a lack of water at the critical time. Most of these survived by being shaded enough, and watered just enough with buckets to survive. I added a few more early this year and put out the rest of my “stash” in the fall. The topped trees seem more stable when the wind is blowing, and all of the snags continue to accrue woodpecker diggings. There is one nest cavity so far. Our dogs tell me the habitat piles are being used by chipmunks and I have observed little critters in them. The seed took somewhat, but there is so much natural grass I’m not sure which came from the seeding. It appears that our work is paying off, with new growth and plant diversity already showing. I believe restoration activities are useful, and can help burned natural habitats more rapidly return to greater diversity and habitat quality. In addition, this work gives landowners (like me) a sense of meaning by doing something “right” and helping nature along. Fire is a natural part of our ecosystem in eastern Washington. We’d better get used to it. • 67 •
Above: Robin Baire and Yogi Martin’s new home is smaller but more manageable. Right, Baire’s apothecary found a place in the new home. Photos by Joanna Bastian
“There is a lot of good will in this house. The local connections, roots in the community — it is a bit overwhelming. We are attached to this ground. This is home.” Robin Baire • 68 •
Back in Business Yogi Martin and Robin Baire had to rebuild not only their home but also Robin’s small company BY JOANNA BASTIAN
OR five endless days in the searing heat of July 2014, Robin Baire and Michael “Yogi” Martin worked tirelessly to save their home on Texas Creek. Robin, a certified clinical herbalist, has owned and operated an herbal apothecary, Horse of a Different Color, for more than 25 years. From her home on Texas Creek, she produces herbal mixtures, tinctures and salves that are available in retail markets across the country. During the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, the apothecary for Horse of a Different Color was destroyed. In a personal story published in the 2014 Methow Valley News publication Trial by Fire, Robin’s partner Yogi recounts vivid details as the fire passed back and forth over the hills of Texas Creek, and their home, for five harrowing days. Each afternoon, the fire returned with greater intensity. For those five days, neighbors and firefighters worked side-by-side on the ground, establishing fire lines and putting out spot fires while overhead, planes dropped bucket after bucket of water and laid down countless lines of retardant. On the fifth day, Friday, July 18, Robin and Yogi fled quickly, stopping at the bottom of Texas Creek to watch flames engulf homes, vehicles, gardens and barns — everything in the fire’s path, including their own home and the heart of the business, which was operated out of the 1,000-square-foot basement. The next two years were spent in limbo as Robin and Yogi commuted between a temporary home
near Twisp, their jobs, and the home site on Texas Creek. Evenings and weekends were spent rebuilding their home.
MAINTAINING THE BUSINESS
Robin maintained Horse of a Different Color in triage mode, executing some of the bare necessities to keep the business running while she worked to rebuild their home and the apothecary. Before the fire, Robin bought herbs in bulk to create her custom blends. Without the space to store inventory, Robin’s operating costs increased with purchases of small quantities of herbs that were needed to maintain the supply chain to retail outlets and clients. Insurance did not cover all of the costs to replace her research library, herbal inventory and office supplies. The domain name of the business website came up for renewal during the chaos of the fire and was not renewed, as Robin had other fires to put out. An unrelated business in Utah secured the domain name for the website shortly after it came up for renewal. Another loss in the fire were all the business cards and labels for Horse of Different Color. With her apothecary and branding gone, Robin was in the unique position of restructuring her business to be more efficient and user-friendly for herself as the owner. The new house has two rooms set aside for Horse of a Different Color. A sunny office is lined with books, the research library that she is rebuilding. During the evacuation, Robin saved a few key books, and fellow herbalists generously donated books
to her office research collection. Next to the office is a growing apothecary. After the fire, Glover Street Market offered to replace a portion of Robin’s herbal inventory. Along with rebuilding and restocking her apothecary, Robin is also working on restoring her branding. She is redesigning her labels and business cards. For an online presence, Robin depended on the business Facebook page, Horse of a Different Color, to connect with clients while her website was down.
During that time she came to realize that the Facebook page met some needs of the business better than the website could, or ever did — leading her to the decision not to replace the website, and to use Facebook as her online connection with clients. With the completion of their house, Robin is now shifting into high gear, restocking the apothecary and offering her full selection of custom-blended herbal remedies once again. Robin and Yogi’s new home is filled with natural light streaming through large windows that offer awe-inspiring views of the Sawtooth Mountains. Robin described the previous 2,800-square-foot home as “monstrous, cavernous.” The new home “is a lot more manageable,” she said, looking around the 1,700-square-foot space. The previous apothecary was located in the basement. Robin recalled how cold and uncomfortable it was to work down there. The new upstairs location of her business is a far more comfortable work space. The entryway of the home doubles as a mudroom and a sunny greenhouse. Built into the side of the hill, the home boasts an indoor root cellar, dug into the cool, insulated hillside. Steps away from the root cellar is a path down to the garden.
“I really like being able to just walk up from the garden, and put the vegetables straight into the root cellar,” Robin said. Drawing on their experiences, Robin and Yogi built their new home with fire-safety protective measures in mind. The exterior is made of insect-resistant stucco and has a metal roof. Exterior vents are temperature-sensitive, and close when heat sensors feel the warmth of an approaching wildfire, effectively stopping embers from entering the home through roof vents. The cistern is hooked up to a generator to provide running water continually even when the power is out. In terms of Firewise landscaping, Robin planted shrubs further away from the house and mows the periphery. Gravel around the buildings serves as a firebreak. The surrounding landscape itself has changed. With the absence of overgrowth, a massive alluvial fan was revealed. It formed decades ago when Texas Creek flooded in the past. With the increased sunlight, there are more flowers covering the hillsides, and easier access to local medicinal plants like nettle and elderberry. A large ash tree used to provide shade next to the house. Now there is a new sunny spot. “I have to rethink about where the clothesline will go,” Robin mused, before looking down at the ground and smiling, “With the pines gone, now it’s an option to walk around barefoot.” The last two years have been a tireless effort commuting between two home sites and jobs as they spent every spare hour rebuilding. “I’m looking forward to playing again, just being here,” Yogi said. “There is a lot of good will in this house,” Robin said. “The local connections, roots in the community — it is a bit overwhelming. We are attached to this ground. This is home.” • 69 •
Katie Haven and Bill Tackman lost their shop and barn to the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. File photo by Ann McCreary
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shear willpower McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch lost buildings to fire but kept the business going BY JOANNA BASTIAN
CFARLAND Creek Lamb Ranch is an idyllic little site tucked away in the curvature of the hills along McFarland Creek south of Carlton. Katie Haven and Bill Tackman raise Romney sheep for both meat and wool. They keep the operation small so that it can be sustained in the lush pastures of the ranch. During the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014, Katie and Bill prepared by setting up irrigation along the length of the pasture. As they were doing so, they heard a loud roaring sound and looked up to see the fire cresting over the ridge. Embers dropped into the dry stubble of a nearby wheat field. Katie and Bill quickly moved 40 sheep to the pasture closest to the house, along with the three herding dogs, and one llama. They closed the gate and hoped for the best. From the McFarland Creek boat launch on the Methow river, they gathered with neighbors and watched black clouds and fierce flames surround homes. “The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see,” Katie said. The next morning when they returned to McFarland Creek they were heartened to see that some of their neighbors’ homes were still standing. As they approached the McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch, they could see that the shop and barn were gone. In the lower pasture, their ram was calmly chewing grass, his coat covered in soot. The dogs were barking to welcome them home. All the animals were alive, and the sheep were calmly grazing. “They were looking at us like,
‘where have you been?’” Katie laughed.
The ranch is a full beginning-toend operation, and a labor of love for Katie and Bill. The sheep enjoy a stress-free environment where they can roam and graze to their hearts’ content within the fence-lined pastures. They are bred on site, and loving care is given to the ewes as they lamb. Lambs are carefully monitored and bottle-fed if needed. When the lambs are of age, Katie and Bill harvest the sheep on site and sell the meat. In the spring, Katie and Bill shear the sheep and the wool is transported to her fiber-processing shop nearly 30 miles away, where it is washed and dyed prior to distribution. The wool from each sheep is kept separately, as each sheep possesses a unique texture and color to its wool. Wool from McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch can be found in retail outlets throughout the region, and the name of the lamb that gave the wool is prominently displayed on a tag attached to the skein.
we had only built chicken coops!” Katie said. The barn was finished before Thanksgiving that year. In spring of 2015 they hired crews to rebuild the fencing around the pastures. And in 2016 Alex Kerr started work on a bigger, better shop space that accommodates the growing business of McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch. The new shop is a serious upgrade to the previous shop space that consisted of three open bays. The new shop will be enclosed and heated.
An office, bathroom, and an upstairs work area for Katie’s fiber processing will be included in the new building, bringing her fiber operations closer to home. A walk-in cooler will be used for meat storage and root vegetables. A spacious outdoor canning station will make summer food preservation easier and more efficient.
For Firewise protection, Katie and Bill increased their efforts in controlling weeds and growth outside of the pasture, creating a larger buffer zone. A network of hoses reaches nearly every area that needs protection. The hoses are connected to a gas-powered pump placed in the creek. Fire hoses long enough to reach the top of the barn, house and workshop were a high-priority purchase after the fire. This last July, Katie and Bill hosted family and friends for an impromptu get-together. As Katie looked around and saw her sister, brother-in-law and friends, she realized that it was the day before the anniversary of the fire. “We were surrounded by the core group of people that got us through,” she said. “It became a celebration.” For more information on McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch, including the online meat store and an entertaining blog with updates on the ranch and fiber activities, visit www. TheLambRanch.com.
McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch began recovery right away after the fire, the barn being the top priority to rebuild, as winter was coming and the sheep needed shelter. Larry Zimmerland sketched out a design, while friends and family traveled to the valley every weekend to build the barn. “Jerry Cole and Dave Lipe offered guidance and set us on the right track. Our skills were rudimentary;
Katie Haven surveys progress on the new McFarland Creek Lamb Ranch building from the future second-story fiber workshop. Photo by Joanna Bastian
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• 72 •
still hoBBled Successive fires have been hard on Brian Varrelman’s horses and businesses BY JOANNA BASTIAN
OTH of Brian Varrelman’s businesses, the Whistlin’ Pine Ranch and Sawtooth Outfitters, are dependent on tourism and suffered long-term losses from recent fires. The past several years have taken their toll. Located next to Alta Lake State Park, Whistlin’ Pine Ranch offers rental cabins and an RV campground. The ranch offers guided horseback rides on private ranch trails in the canyon during summer and guided outfitter services during hunting season. In 2012, two fires evacuated Alta Lake State Park and its campground. The Antoine Creek Fire in August burned nearly 8,000 acres, destroying fences and pasture. As that fire burned, people ignited the Billy Goat Fire by shooting exploding targets. The Antoine Creek Fire put an end to camping season, and the Billy Goat Fire put Sawtooth Outfitters on hold during the start of packing season. The following year, 2013, saw a loss of revenue as campers did not wish to return to a burned Alta Lake after the damage caused by both fires.
In mid-summer 2014, the Carlton Complex Fire delivered another devastating blow to the ranch. Varrelman and ranch hand Jake O’Reilly held their ground for three days and nights, working around the clock to save nearly a dozen nearby homes
and 70 head of horses. At one point, 40-mile-per-hour winds pushed the fire north along the west side of the canyon — trapping Varrelman, O’Reilly and the 70 horses. In an interview with Methow Valley News at the time, Varrelman remembered that terrifying night: “It was scary, intimidating. Sounds of exploding, the fire was a hungry beast — cars, propane tanks, transformers … it was windy up at the golf course, these goblin-like winds taking some houses, leaving others. It was horrible.” It took a neighborhood effort to suppress hot spots for weeks — with no power, no water and no communication. Varrelman lost pasture, trees, fences, timber and yet another season of tourism business. A timber sale was scheduled for 2017, but with close to 80 percent of the trees burned, that source of income was also lost. During the winter of 2015, Varrelman suffered another tragic loss, in part due to the 2014 fires. Some horses wandered through the broken fence lines, toward bulrushes sticking above the frozen surface of Alta Lake. Several horses broke through the ice and drowned. Varrelman is not sure how much longer he can survive. All of his money is going toward keeping his horses healthy, treating the symptoms instead of restoring and rebuilding the ranch. He needs additional money to buy fencing materials, grass seed, and a payroll to hire the help to finish all the work within a season.
Damaged soil and hard rains caused this boulder to slide several feet, knocking over a tree and blocking a back road on the ranch. Photo by Joanna Bastian
REPERCUSSIONS FOR STOCK
Varrelman’s horses have suffered long-lasting repercussions from three fires in four years. Burned meadows and ruined fences impacted their diet and ability to ward off communal illnesses. Because of the downed fences, Varrelman was unable to release the herd into the open meadows to roam and feed. The horses spent the last two winters penned in close quarters with communal watering troughs and hay bales for food. Not that there was much left to eat in the meadows. Where waist-high bunch grass once grew, the soil was either sterilized barren from heat, or became overgrown with noxious weeds not fit for animals to graze. With a change in diet and living accommodations, the horses’ immune systems weakened. In close proximity, the horses shared the same water tanks, food and illnesses. Shipping fever and equine flu spread across the herd. Veterinarian Michael Isenhart in Brewster helped Varrelman develop a treatment regime for the horses including filing their teeth for easier
chewing and better digestion, supplements, and organic iodine added to their food. But short-term solutions just treat the results of damage to the horses’ environment. The long-term solution is re-seeding the meadows with quality forage, and repairing the miles of fence line. Over the last four years, as soon as Varrelman replaced a fence or reseeded a field, another fire destroyed any gains, and resulted in greater damage to the ranch’s rangeland and tourism business. Meanwhile, the horses still need tending to. On a recent morning, Varrelman and ranch hand Slade Ginter looked over a tall horse named Lil’ Red, checking teeth, skin and hooves, and administering any needed treatments or medications. Lil’ Red had a set of molars that need trimming, plus a dose of worm medication and treatment for a small skin infection. With the exam over, the horse stepped away quickly and trotted out to rejoin the rest of the herd. Lil’ Red is one of the healthy ones.
Brian Varrelman and Slade Ginter file Lil’ Red’s teeth to enable proper chewing and digesting of food. Photo by Joanna Bastian
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helping hands Volunteers, contributions and an SBA loan helped Buddy Thomas rebuild his Finley Canyon home BY ANN MCCREARY
OR three days Buddy Thomas, like everyone in the Methow Valley in mid-July 2014, watched wildfires around the valley grow and move. From his house on a hillside above Finley Canyon, he could see the fire advancing on July 17. As he prepared to leave for his job at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp, he realized that the fire had burned through Pipestone Canyon northwest of Finley Canyon. Throughout the day Thomas heard reports about the fire’s race down the valley. He left work to return to his house in the afternoon to grab some things — important papers, and musical instruments and equipment. “I left about half an hour before the flames came through,” and went back to work, he said. When Thomas returned hours later, his home was a gutted, smoldering shell. An accomplished guitar player, he salvaged an aluminum guitar stand from the rubble of his home, but not much else. Weirdly, a wooden shed only 30 feet away was unscathed, except for Plexiglas windows that had melted in the heat. The door of the shed was slightly ajar, and when he looked inside, he saw two rattlesnakes there. “It was like they had found shelter during the fire,” he said.
moved to the Methow Valley in 2007 and began building a home together. They started with the garage, which was bermed into the hillside on three sides. They turned the garage space into temporary living quarters where they planned to live while building the main house, which would have been above the garage. But Thomas’s partner became ill with cancer soon after they moved to the Methow Valley, and she died before they could begin work on the house. After her illness, Thomas didn’t have the financial resources to move forward on the project, so he continued to live in space intended for the garage — until it burned. “I didn’t have insurance, because it was not a certified dwelling. Luckily I had steady employment,” Thomas said. He found shelter with a friend for a while, and was unexpectedly “gifted” a recreational vehicle by a man from the Puget Sound area who
wanted to help fire victims. When the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group (CCLTRG) was formed in the wake of the fires to assist fire victims, Thomas got in touch and was assigned a case manager. Help began to arrive. The Lions Club of Tonasket bought snow tires for his car, because his had burned in the fire, and paid for power to be restored to his property. The next spring, Thomas’ house was chosen as a project of the CCLTRG’s rebuilding effort. It was a fairly simple project, Thomas said, because the concrete walls and floor were still intact, so the framing-in could be accomplished more quickly and easily than building from the ground up. Thomas applied for a Small Business Administration loan, and received $14,000. In his 60s and looking toward retirement, he wasn’t thrilled at taking on new debt, but it allowed him to pay for most of the construction materials. Then the volunteers began arriving, organized through the CCLTRG. One of the first groups on the scene helped clear metal and burned debris from his property. The North Creek Presbyterian Church in Mill Creek sent a crew to
Some 300 homes were destroyed in the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, and approximately 45 percent of the homeowners did not have insurance. Thomas was one of them. He and his partner of 27 years had
• 74 •
“It’s my dream home,” says Buddy Thomas of his Finley Canyon house, rebuilt with assistance from the Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery Group. Photo by Ann McCreary
work on framing in his house. Then a team of six Mennonites from around the country arrived to install insulation—and they stayed on for three months through completion of the house. “When they came to do the insulation, they kind of fell in love with my project. They said, ‘We’re going to finish Buddy’s project,’” Thomas said. “They were enjoying their lives while they were doing it,” said Thomas, who assisted them when he was able. In addition to Thomas’ home, the Mennonite volunteers, mostly in their 20s, were also helping rebuild other homes in and around the Methow Valley that burned in the fire. Noticing his guitar at the house one day, they asked Thomas to play for them, and he did. A day or two later, they asked if they could to sing for him. “They got together in a cappella four-part harmony,” Thomas recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve been doing this all your lives, haven’t you?’” The Mennonite volunteers returned to celebrate the dedication of his new home held by the long-term recovery group later that year, and sang again in honor of the occasion.
Thomas’s 880-square-foot house is a simple but cozy one-room living space with walls painted, by the Mennonites, in warm oranges and yellows. The CCLTRG purchased a refrigerator and washer-dryer. Skylights bring in natural light, and a bank of west-facing windows along the front of the house showcases the panoramic view from the hillside. Thomas calls it his “dream home,” and a year after it was completed, he still finds it hard to believe. “I’m just grateful to all the different forces that made it happen,” he said. “It took a while to get used to being back here again,” Thomas said. “I sometimes think, ‘Do I deserve something this nice?’ I try to enjoy it as much as I can and be grateful for it.”
Volunteers from North Creek Presbyterian Church helped Thomas come up with a design that used some of the original structure, which was built into the hillside. Using a modular design devised by one of its members, the North Creek team has erected exterior walls for 14 of the houses built by the county’s long-term recovery group. Photos by Marcy Stamper
• 75 •
Don and Pat Owens sit by a fire pit (above) that was one of the few things remaining (right) after the Carlton Complex Fire swept through their property. Photo above by Ann McCreary, right courtesy Don and Pat Owens
• 76 •
recovering along with the land Don and Pat Owens lost their home to the Carlton Complex Fire, but rebuilt with determination BY ANN MCCREARY
S she walked through her recently rebuilt home overlooking Finley Canyon, Pat Owens felt both gratitude and disbelief. “Being here feels surreal,” she said. “Sometimes I have a bit of déjà vu.” Pat and Don Owens rebuilt on the site of their former home, which was destroyed by the Carlton Complex Fire when it swept through Finley Canyon on its devastating run toward Pateros on July 17, 2014. From a vantage point south of Finley Canyon that night, Don saw the firestorm race toward their home and watched in amazement as it exploded in flames. “It was magnificent,” he recalled afterwards. “When you see it actually go up … it’s one of those helpless feelings, totally beyond your control.” Pat had chosen not to watch. A few hours before the fire roared through, the couple had managed to load some of their possessions into a travel trailer, assisted by a neighbor, Bob Ulrich. Don ran through the house taking photos of everything he could, which proved invaluable in settling their insurance claim. They grabbed their computer and a file cabinet and drove out of the canyon as the fire approached. When they returned to their hilltop property the next morning, they found smoldering, blackened ruins of their home and the workshop where Don had a “lifetime accumulation of tools.” Among the few things to have
escaped the fire was a 30-foot-tall wooden windmill that Don had built, and some wooden Adirondack chairs. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Pat said, they felt devastated. The house they had built as their retirement home was gone, along with all their possessions. “It was just so sad. I was having post-traumatic stress,” Pat said. Yet at the same time, they recognized they were fortunate. Their insurance company worked quickly to settle their claim, and they were able to be philosophical about their loss. “It’s one of those things that happened. There was nothing we could do. You just have to make peace with it. That’s all you can do,” Pat said. They left the valley for a while to visit family, while they considered their options. They saw their future, which had centered around their Finley Canyon retirement home, as “a blank slate,” said Don. Initially they considered buying a house somewhere else in the valley, and began looking at other properties. “But we kept coming back up here [to their home site],” Pat said. “It’s what first attracted us.”
DETERMINED TO REBUILD
It took a couple of months for them to realize they wanted to return to their original property. “We deep down knew we were going to rebuild,” Pat said. The Owens rented a mobile home while the new house was under construction. The foundation of their
The Owens rebuilt, using fireresistant materials, on the foundation of their former home, which was left in smoldering ruins after the wildfire. Photo above by Ann McCreary, right courtesy Don and Pat Owens
original home was still sound, so they rebuilt on the same footprint. Their first home, which was sided with 100-year-old wood, would not have survived the ferocity of the Carlton Complex Fire, no matter what kind of materials had been used to build it, Don believes. The workshop was made entirely of metal, and it was completely destroyed. They have chosen to make their new home as fire-resistant as possible. The siding is concrete Hardie board and metal, the roof is metal, and openings around decks are enclosed with metal to prevent embers from entering. A lawn forms a green belt around the house, and trees are at a distance from the structure to create a fire-safe zone. The wildfire altered the landscape around the house, making it less likely to burn as it did in 2014, Don said.
“We were surrounded by sagebrush before. That is what carried the fire. Now all the sagebrush is gone. We have beautiful meadows. Grass doesn’t make as hot a fire,” he said. The couple spent most of the past summer pulling out the black skeletons of burned sagebrush around the house with a tractor. “Otherwise we’d be looking at a burned landscape,” Pat said. “The land is recovering,” Don said. “You look out there now and you can hardly tell there was a fire.” Looking back at the time since the fire, the experience was one of “being displaced for two years … like nothing is permanent,” Don said. “The whole ordeal takes two years of your life,” he said. “I don’t know if we have the energy to do this again.” • 77 •
• 78 •
help from all over Hundreds of volunteers contributed thousands of hours rebuilding homes lost to fires BY M A R C Y S TA M PE R
HE volunteers come from as far away as Idaho, Alabama and North Dakota to help people they’ve never met whose lives were upended by a catastrophic fire. Some of the volunteers are retired, some are young adults just starting out, and quite a few devote their vacation time to this work. In addition to physical labor, many volunteers fund their own efforts, raising tens of thousands of dollars not only for their own expenses but also to buy lumber or appliances for the houses they’re rebuilding. Their work is constructive, literally and symbolically. Volunteer crews for the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group (LTRG) have already
“The first time I came up here it was pretty devastating,” said Speir. “But then I started identifying things and getting closure.” Susan Speir, lost home in Carlton Complex
completed houses for 16 families who didn’t have the means to rebuild on their own, and there are another 15 families who qualify for their homes. But some of the work — like stacking burned timbers and twisted metal or sifting through ash — is decidedly bleak. It takes a singular outlook to keep from feeling defeated by doing these jobs day after day. “One of the biggest things it does is give them some hope, in what looks like an impossible task,” said Terry Berkompas, who helped with a needs assessment right after the fire and returned later with his church to help rebuild. “I know I’m helping somebody else emotionally and physically. It’s not for any reward here on earth,” said Sandra Harrison, the leader of a crew of Southern Baptists who specialize in cleaning up rubble. Harrison and her crew came from southern California. They were among the first volunteers to arrive after the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014. “We pay to go on a disaster as a gift to the homeowner. Our reward is a gift from God to the homeowners,” she said. Since volunteers started arriving in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, well over 1,000 have devoted anywhere from a few hours to a weekend to half a year, according to Kathy Power, LTRG’s volunteer coordinator. The vast majority — about 90 percent — are associated with faith groups and had no previous connection with this area. Most volunteers echo Harrison’s
A crew of Southern Baptists from California specializes in combing through wreckage to find items that may have survived. They found dishes, art supplies and a glass angel at this site, helping create closure for the homeowner. Photo by Marcy Stamper
attitude. “The idea is Christian service, to help those in need,” said Jerry Kobes as he installed drywall in a new home this fall. Kobes is a retired engineer who volunteers with the Central United Protestant Church in Richland, the same group Berkompas works with. “Actions speak louder than words,” he said.
Harrison’s crew received specialized training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in operating heavy equipment and even in effective shoveling techniques. But their unique skill set is patiently combing through the wreckage to find items that may have survived. They ask homeowners
Volunteers from the Central United Protestant Church in Richland installed insulation and drywall for someone whose house burned in the Carlton Complex Fire. “The idea is Christian service, to help those in need,” said one of the team members. Photo by Marcy Stamper
• 79 •
Volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Service cleaned up metal at several sites on French Creek that burned in the Carlton Complex Fire. The group not only contributed their own labor, but also brought the heavy equipment to extract the metal and truck it to a site for recycling and sale as scrap. Photos by Marcy Stamper
about the layout of their house so they know where to look — for example, they may dig for jewelry where a bedroom was or look for crockery or silver in the vicinity of a collapsed kitchen.
They’re able to unearth some surprising things. Cleaning up the charred remains of the home of Susan Speir and Dave Hopkins after the Carlton Complex Fire, Harrison’s crew found burned printmaking paper and wire-bound notebooks in Speir’s art studio. “It’s fun. This was a lifetime of art supplies,” said Speir. The fact that Speir could find something uplifting in the process
• 80 •
was due in part to Harrison and her crew. “The first time I came up here it was pretty devastating,” said Speir. “But then I started identifying things and getting closure.” Harrison’s crew also found a glass angel in a storage shed, an urn from Puerto Rico, pieces of marble, some of her mother’s dishes, and two salt and pepper shakers, still intact. Among the biggest contributors of time and expertise to LTRG’s rebuilding campaign is the HELP team (His Enduring Love Provides) from the North Creek Presbyterian Church in Mill Creek, north of Seattle. The North Creek team has built exterior walls for 14 of the houses. Dick McGrath, a HELP team
Volunteers with Second Chance Charities dodged wasps’ nests as they extricated irrigation lines that had melted into the ground. Photo by Marcy Stamper
member and a retired Boeing engineer, came up with a modular house design for the exterior walls composed of a dozen panels, which simplifies the rebuilding process. They build the walls in a garage in Snohomish and truck them across the mountains to assemble on site. “These guys, they’ve been awesome,” said Power. “It’s a group of retired guys from the congregation, with some gifted engineers,” said Michael Gibb from the HELP team. “We enjoy working with our hands and having something tangible at the end of the day.” Their first project, for Hugo and Juana Perez and their two children in Pateros, went so smoothly that the recovery group asked them to build
the walls for more houses, said Gibb. Gibb and the others on the team have gotten to know all the clients they’ve helped. After the fire, Juana had lost hope, said Gibb. During the construction, she insisted on making lunch for the crew every day and, now that they’ve moved in, the team visits the Perez family regularly. “That’s part of the reason we do this,” said Gibb. North Creek funds its own projects as much as possible, with major support from the Presbyterian church’s mission program, plus donations from smaller events like pancake breakfasts.
The work brings emotional benefits for them and to the survivors of
these disasters, said the volunteers. “A lot of it is giving people a chance to tell their story. You hear people where they’re at, and don’t be judgmental,” said Patty Hubbard, who came with the crew from Richland to work on insulation and drywall. “You get to meet people — the clients are always very interesting. They’re people who have gone through terrible natural disasters—everyone’s got a story,” said Tom Bracewell, who worked on a house near Balky Hill with a group from the Christian Reform Church in Yakima. Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), a large, nationwide network, had crews based in Pateros for six months last year. The relationships they build with survivors are as important as the actual construction. “One of the important things we do as volunteers is listen to people’s stories and hear about the emotional trauma of disaster. It’s part of healing,” said one of the MDS volunteers. These connections are a vital part of the overall recovery. “Seeing the clients’ relationships with volunteers — there are tears every single week,” said Carlene Anders, executive director of the LTRG. MDS has been helping people in need since the 1950s. “We keep evolving and becoming more efficient all the time,” said Jim Shelley, an MDS volunteer from Idaho. Robert and Sally Unrau spent the spring and summer of 2015 in Pateros as houseparents for MDS crews, many in their teens and 20s. MDS uses standardized housing plans, which makes it easy to train people, even those with little construction experience. “I can take any volunteer willing to learn and bring them up to speed in about two days,”
said Unrau, a retired architect. “It’s both exhilarating and draining. There’s no way to describe the feeling of helping someone who’s been through so much trauma,” he said. But at the end of their sixmonth shift they’ll welcome the break at home in Boise. “We’re ready to kick back in the recliner and watch nonsense TV,” said Sally. The young Mennonite volunteers and the North Creek team have collaborated on many projects. “It’s amazing how well they work together and how much fun they are to have around,” said Gibb about the MDS crews. They have a new policy: “We don’t lift anything heavy until the young guys get there,” he said.
A MISSION OF ALTRUISM
Many of these people volunteer to help others as an expression of their faith, and say they don’t come to preach or proselytize. The Southern Baptist clean-up team includes a chaplain. “We’ll meet with homeowners if they’re distressed,” said Harrison, who’s been helping people recover from disasters for more than two decades with the group. “We do not preach — we present the gospel if they’re interested. We let God be seen in what we do.” “If people ask [about our faith], we’re happy to share, but we’re here just to help,” said Terry Berkompas from the church in Richland. “There’s no blatant evangelism—we just have a very strong belief in mission, whether local, regional, national or international. It’s a big part of our Christianity,” said Gibb from North Creek. “It’s also a lot of fun.”
HELP FROM THOUSANDS The LTRG tracks volunteer
“You get to meet people — the clients are always very interesting. They’re people who have gone through terrible natural disasters — everyone’s got a story,” Tom Bracewell, rebuild volunteer from the Christian Reform Church in Yakima • 81 •
contributions by the year, and the numbers are striking. In the first 10 months of 2016 alone, they had 843 volunteers from 78 different groups. United Methodist Volunteers in Mission sent 27 teams — a total of 271 volunteers — in 2016 alone, said Power. Christian Relief Services donated 4,800 hours in a single month, said Anders. Power juggles volunteers’ skills and schedules with weather and availability of materials. “I do a lot of maps and I drive around a lot,” she said, grateful that the volunteers are so flexible. “What I have seen — this would make your heart open — is they keep coming back, most at least once a year,” said Power. They have a 60-percent return rate. “People have an awesome time and feel they made a huge difference in people’s lives,” she said. “You see these connections start to happen between the teams and fire survivors,” said Power. When volunteers come back to visit, they’ve brought everything from hay to bees to help people get back on their feet.
While most teams are connected with a faith group, many backed by an experienced volunteer organization, others are not affiliated with any formal group or religion. Two women who’d passed through the Methow Valley on a road trip just before the Carlton Complex —and got help themselves when they had car trouble here —decided to come back the following summer to help rebuild. A group of young adults in Eugene, Oregon, started their own nonprofit
A group of young adults from Eugene, Oregon, started Second Chance Charities in 2014. Photo by Marcy Stamper
in 2014 called Second Chance Charities. Coming to the Methow to help was their first project outside of Oregon. “We wanted to do some good in the world,” said Trevor Pasley, one of the founders. “We all need help at some point in our lives.” Originally from the Midwest, Pasley still tracks the dramatic weather of that region — he calls himself a storm-chaser — and with that comes a keen awareness of the impacts of natural disasters. After seeing reports about the wildfires here, they called Power to offer their services. She hooked them up with a family in the Methow who
Many volunteers with Mennonite Disaster Service make a long-term commitment, providing a home base for other young volunteers who come from across the country to devote a week or two to construction. The group shared meals at their base in Pateros in 2015. Photo by Marcy Stamper
• 82 •
had lost outbuildings and fencing. On a blistering summer day, Pasley and his team dodged wasps’ nests as they extricated irrigation lines that had melted into the ground. While many groups come from afar to help, locals have also been big contributors to the recovery. Some do hands-on work, some offer housing for out-of-town volunteers, and some help by coordinating and distributing resources. As neighbors of those affected by the fires, the Carlton Complex Fire Relief & Assistance Network (CCAN) helps people meet a variety of critical needs, said Ronda Bradeen, the group’s president. CCAN understands rural life and what people need to return to self-sufficiency. For example, they make sure people have tools so they can do their own rebuilding and resume their livelihood, she said. CCAN provides emotional encouragement along with logistical support. “It’s really hard not to get burned out,” said Bradeen. “People are running on adrenaline and doing amazing things.” As of this fall, the LTRG had completed 15 homes in the first phase of rebuilding. They are currently working on another 15, a mix of stick-built and manufactured homes, said Power. “It would have been devastating without volunteers,” said Anders.
“People would have given up,” agreed one of the crew members, who said the homeowners had been empowered by the kindness and generosity of those who came to help. “One client said, ‘I’ve never had so many real friends in my life,’ said MDS volunteer Shelley. “He called us ‘angels of God.’” While volunteers perform an invaluable role by rebuilding houses and fences, what they provide—more than anything — is renewed hope, said Power. “It’s a little magic that happens,” she said.
“It’s both exhilarating and draining. There’s no way to describe the feeling of helping someone who’s been through so much trauma.” Robert Unrau, retired architect, Mennonite Disaster Services
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A follow up to Trial by Fire, this 2016 publication by the Methow Valley News looks at the communities affected by the 2014 Carlton Complex...
Published on Oct 1, 2016
A follow up to Trial by Fire, this 2016 publication by the Methow Valley News looks at the communities affected by the 2014 Carlton Complex...