The path to a healthy forest and fire-wise community | Environment
Forest in the city limits of Spokane were not always thick with trees. Prior to 19th century settlement, the wilderness had its own way of handling its ecosystem. Wildfires were an integral part of the survival of forest, clearing away low growing vegetation. Now it’s a hazard with the integration of a growing community living in and around a pine bounty.
Without regular wildfires to keep a forest healthy and thin, the danger of losing the land all together to raging flames increases. To protect the lavish land that invites recreators, community help is necessary to maintain what fires would have done naturally.
Down the steep hillside along Spokane’s High Drive, Guy Gifford with the Washington Department of Natural Resources marches down the trail head. With his clinometer, he studies the slopes to perform an assessment on the area. His biggest curiosity, can he bring a chipping machine along the trails and thin about 177 acres of forest?
“Can I get equipment in here? If I could fly a piece in here ... I’ve been told we could drive some in,” Gifford contemplates to himself.
The recreational trails used by bicyclists, hikers and runners on the bluff start on a 55-60% slope. Gifford explains that most mechanical equipment can’t operate on it to even chip debris cleared during forest pruning. Due to past wildfires, the soil is prepared like a garden; it's bare, burnt dirt that is sandy and rocky underfoot. The growing Ponderosa pines seed like crazy in the setting, creating a dense hillside.
Gifford described the pines as sun lovers that hate the shade. It's a fire-dependent tree that needs the hot flames to survive. They reproduce better in grand open land. That’s why the taller the tree, the more open the area.
A history of weather
The bluff along High Drive is not the only land in the city limits that faces fire danger. Also trudging down the bluff, Spokane Fire Marshal Lisa Jones lists the various regions in Spokane with similar conditions: Beacon Hill, Underhill Park, Riverside State Park, Peaceful Valley, Five Mile Prairie and along Southwest Boulevard and the Spokane River.
“All around the city, the city is right in this forested area. All the areas of development were once like this,” Jones said. “The areas that are not, are just like this - this natural stand of Ponderosa pine and other vegetation.”
Jones explained the whole area is at risk because of the type of weather conditions we get here.
“Typically every summer it dries out like this. It’s seasonal temperatures with little rainfall. Because of those conditions, we get dried out vegetation,” Jones said. “Sometimes we have earlier onset of drought conditions. This year it’s a little later. We just can’t forget and be complacent.”
Thankfully cooler temperatures and moisture extended into June keeping some of the vegetation green, but when dry weather settles in the increased amount of vegetation dries likes kindling ready to grow a hot fire.
Trimming the fat of the forest
If a fire were to ignite along the bluff, it presents a problem for crews. Jones said they would definitely pull in outside resources and call in an airdrop from DNR. That comes back to Gifford’s dilemma of how to get a chipper in the woods. The next best solution is to do the best they can to thin the forest and prevent fires.
“[Thinning] increases the health of trees. These trees are putting out very tiny growth rings. As they thin out, they’ll get double or triple in size. The trees will get bigger, quicker,” Gifford explained. “It will still take a long time from our human standpoint. Seeing a big tree here, I might not see that before I pass away, but my kids and grandkids will see the benefit.”
When thinned, the space between trees allows aerial fuel breaks so fires can’t easily go from tree to tree on the crown. Another benefit: thinning also decreases the chances of bark beetle attacks and mistletoe that can stunt the growth of trees.
The work of the few
It’s going to take as many people as possible to tackle the work needed on the bluff. That’s why a group of concerned neighbors came together to form the “High Drive Bluffs” to get in there and do yard work on a mass scale.
Diana Roberts, the regional WSU extension specialist, leads the volunteers on their trail parties. They clean, weed and prune to maintain the neighborhood’s resource for recreation.
“It’s a long process. What we talked about is using the existing conduit trails as a baseline for a fuel break. So we’re not creating a fire break which would be a barren area. A fuel break would have fewer and sparser trees,” Robert explained.
They started with a one acre test area for trimming with instruction from city and county tree specialists. Their goal for 2012 is to complete ten acres and become a Firewise community to become eligible for a grant that would help them further their work on the bluff.
So far they’ve had to cancel two work parties this week due to hot temperatures. Eventually they won’t need to worry about that. They plan on working on their bluff until it snows.
Gifford understands the challenges this group faces. He says it takes about 40 hours minimum to do one acre with at least ten people. From a volunteer standpoint, that’s a huge undertaking since most of the work parties last only two to three hours.
Playing to an ecosystem’s history
Tending to a forest manually is the only option for the Spokane area. Letting nature take its course is not an option because it would “kill every single tree here in a big wildfire” according to Gifford.
“Some people say let’s manage our forest naturally and I say we can’t because we’ve been successfully managing forest for over a hundred years now and that’s through fire suppression,” Gifford said. “We have to mechanically do it because fire is not a viable tool anymore because of people where there’s a risk of losing homes and air quality issues.”
Using the old television show Bonanza as an example, Gifford says historically you could ride through the ponderosa like Hoss and shoot bad guys in the distance. On the bluff, it would be nearly impossible due to the density of vegetation.
“Historically, a lot of Spokane County was large trees with very few understory because wildfires came through every 8 to 12 years,” Gifford said. “We did a study in Dishman Hills to see how frequently fire came. There - it came in every 7 to 13 years. It kept the [forest] low growing and not a lot of these thick trees in large acreage like we have here.”
In the past, wildfires would thin the trees by destroying a majority of them. Only 1-2% of them would survive, but after age 10, the tree would increase its chances of survival. With human involvement to suppress fires, that wouldn’t happen thus the increased density and fuel for fires. If a fire were to sweep through the bluff out of control, it would be disastrous.
These are the curses for a city close to nature
“It’s lovely. People love the privacy and being close to nature, but it’s dangerous this time of year. That’s why people need to be conscientious of the vegetation around their home,” Jones explained.
Every year there’s a fire danger. The conditions never change from the hot and dry summer the Spokane area experiences after June.
“These are the conditions. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t get better,” Jones said. “Until the community agrees that yes, just like California, and just like Colorado will be moving to, these are our conditions and we have to learn to live with nature if we want to survive.”
The changes made on the bluff and other forested areas of Spokane won’t be for tomorrow’s benefit. It takes awhile. The towering Ponderosas, built to survive fires, don’t grow overnight.