After two devastating years of fires in the Northwest, it seems fire season brings only destruction. In 2014 and 2015 alone, more than half a million acres burned. But wildfires do have an upside.
The U.S. Forest Service reported earlier this month that the intensity of the Buck Creek/Saul Fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is actually beneficial to the long-term health of the forest.
Firefighters reported that fire didn’t burn evenly. Some areas were untouched, others were scorched. This mosaic of burned and unburned areas helps the forest recover from the blaze.
Paul Hessburg is a research landscape ecologist with the Forest Service.
“Using natural wildfire ignitions to burn heavy fuels and thin the forest… is an ideal and safe way to begin to ‘reset’ the natural burn patchwork that once existed on this landscape,” Hessburg says.
The Forest Service says this patchwork pattern decreases the concentration of fuels, lowers the risk of catastrophic fires, and reduces the presence of lingering smoke in the future.
It’s important to note that fire is a natural part of the cycle in most ecosystems. According to the National Park Service (NPS), wildfires clear out dead vegetation, stimulate new growth, and improve habitat for wildlife.
But with fire suppression, “fire was removed from the cycle and ecosystems began to get out of balance,” says the NPS.
When fire doesn’t occur or is overtly suppressed, fuels – such as dead trees, pine needles, shrubs – build up to unnatural levels.
That’s why earlier this month fire managers for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest started prescribed fires. The goal: to improve forest health and public safety by burning off the fuel build-up, allowing the ecosystem to reboot.
“Restoration matters,” says Forest and Fire Aviation fire staff officer Keith Scatterfield. “The right fire at the right time in the right place is an incredibly effective way to have a healthier forest.”
Wildfires benefit forests - and can also help wildlife. The Forest Service reports that trees killed by the fire create new habitat for many species. Additionally, new plant growth will provide additional grazing opportunities for wildlife.
Wildfires also bring benefits in winter. Over time, avalanches carry the debris from wildfires into valley bottoms, creating pools, ripples and natural fish habitat in creeks and streams.