Fire Ecology - Okanogan Highlands

The ecosystem of the Okanogan Highlands is rooted in fire ecology.  These conifer forests and associated flora have evolved with fire as a natural and necessary contributor to habitat vitality and renewal. Numerous plant species exist in the Highlands that naturally require fire in the processes of germination and to reproduce.

As an example – Lodge Pole Pine is dependent on fire for replacement. Unlike the more massive Ponderosa Pine, the Lodge Pole has little defense against wildfire. With a thin bark and growing in dense stands these trees, under the right conditions accelerate fire to the crown. Wildfire then may spread tree to tree and thus a stand-replacing fire occurs. Intense fires cause the serotinous cones of the Lodge Pole Pine to open, releasing the seeds to be able to regenerate.

The intermix of humans and fire in the Okanogan Highlands has a long history starting with the native tribes who developed the process of using landscape fires to burn off areas with the results of improving hunting and foraging as well as maintaining travel corridors. Over time as the demographics of the Highlands shifted emphasis was placed on fire suppression thus changing the role of fire in the area. Still many of the natural occurring plants are highly flammable throughout periods of the annual fire season and contribute to wildfire problems to fire managers, firefighters, and the general community. 
Small surface fire spreading in pine needles

Wildfire Ponderosa Pine…

Flames of a small wildfire burn at the base of a Ponderosa Pine in the timber litter surrounding the tree. Mature Ponderosa Pines are rarely affected by wildfire due to the thick bark surrounding their bole. Their needle cast encourages low intensity fires to burn beneath the mature trees eliminating brush and other competitive tree growth leading to a veranda like forest of these towering trees in their natural environment. The Ponderosa Pine and the habitat it creates plays a vital role in the fire ecology of the Okanogan Highlands.
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Part of the surface fuels is the abundant timber litter
Spreading Surface Fire…
Once the source of ignition in a dry vegetation environment has started combustion in receptive fuels a small fire begins spreading across a limited landscape. Sometimes this is the natural cycle of nature, a lightning fire thinning the fuels. Other times it is the carelessness of humans causing a fire with potential for great damage. In this image the lighter fuels, grasses (known to firefighters as ‘one hour fuels’) and timber litter (10 hour fuels) are carrying the fire to heavier vegetation and enhancing the wildfire spread.
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Surface fuels have carried the fire to and ignited a small tree

Little Torch…

When the larger vegetation is receptive (dry enough and in specific arrangements) wildfire can spread from the one hour fuels (grasses) to the larger ‘10’ fuels (small branches and forest debris). In this case a small fir tree torches as the heat from the surrounding grass combustion sets the stage for wildfire growth.
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Multiple trees begin to torch and launch burning embers
Double Torch – Wilcox Fire…
As the wildfire developed and spreads across the landscape to more available fuels the complexity of the of the situation increases; temperatures rise, convection columns develop, more torching occurs and the fire begins to burn in the heavier ‘100 and 1,000 hour fuels’. A simple brush fire is developing into a more complex forest fire. I took this image mid afternoon on a clear, summer’s day but the smoke column from the larger body of the main fire was so thick it appears to be late twilight. What you see here are spot fires in the advance of the main blaze.
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Cluster torching of multiple fuel types
In this photograph a cluster of fir trees and a branchy, dead snag are torching. On this hot day in the Highlands these flaming trees will launch thousands of burning embers downwind. Embers landing far from the main blaze with start spotfires.  Spotfires will grow and contribute to the spread of the wildfire increasing the difficulty and danger of fire suppression operations. Clusters of trees torching like this are not crown fires.
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Fireline manager calling in air attack resources to control spot fire
Calling in an air strike…
Fire Commander calling in an air strike on this spot fire. Spotfires have to be “knocked-down” to establish control of the main fire. The over all objective is to check the spread of the wildfire by holding it against a nearby forest roadway. The torching fir in the foreground has tight-knit branch clusters caused by a disease called mistletoe, which causes deformity in the trees branches and tops. These tight clusters of fuel burn very hot once ignited and can cause problem fire behavior.
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Heavy air-tanker making a retardant drop on a wildland fire
Air Tanker…
I caught this pic of a heavy retardant ship (airplane) flying low and dropping it’s load of red dyed retardant in an effort to check the fire spread.  Air attack resources allow ground firefighting forces to close with the wildfire with the object of containing it. This action was on the Cape Labelle Fire, near Wauconda Washington in the Okanogan Highlands.
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The stage is set for a crown fire
Beginning of a crown fire...
If burning conditions are right, and the progress of the forest fire goes unchecked a more complex crown fire may develop. A crown fire is where the fire progresses through the crowns of the trees independent of the ground fire. Conditions of a crown fire often lead to what firefighters call a “nuked” landscape. Where everything is burned, the soils scorched away and only the near branchless,  black boles of trees remain standing. In this image we see a crown fire developing on the Togo Fire near Danville, Washington south of Grand Forks, British Columbia.
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The aftermath of a stand replacement crown fire
The Aftermath of a Crown Fire...
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Mount Leona Fire Scar - Winter
Possibly one of the best ways to actually see the forest impact of a wildland fire is to step back and observe the landscape during the off-season - winter. Here is an image of Mount Leona in the winter of 2002 after the Mount Leona Fire Complex (remember you can click the image for a more detailed view).
Mount Leona Fire - North Fork Saint Peter's Creek

Mount Leona Fire...
On August 13, 2001 a dry thunder storm moved through the Okanogan Highlands. Lightning ignites multiple fires, one of which was the Mount Leona Fire. It started on the north slope of Mount Leona, within the boundaries of the Colville National Forest, west of Kettle Crest in Ferry County, approximately 15 miles northeast of Republic, Washington. The fire grew to 6,144 acres and spilled over onto the northeast side of Tonasket Mountain, burning in a steep and rugged forest of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, with areas of heavy dead and down fuels.

Dozer used in fireline construction as a fire suppression tool
From the start fire suppression forces fought the Mount Leona Fire but conflicting strategies and objectives from forest management led to unclear tactics for on-the-ground fire managers, complicating the fire suppression operations. The fire escaped initial attack efforts and soon forces evacuation of the North Fork of Saint Peter’s Creek east of Malo, WA. Before the suppression effort was accomplished three weeks later on September 3rd, the Mount Leona Complex (designated a complex as a number of other lightning start fires fell under the same command system) had the following firefighting resources assigned:  29 hand crews, 7 helicopters, 23 engines, 20 water tenders, and 4 camp crews. Total personnel: 1,005. Agencies represented: Curlew Volunteer Fire Department, Republic Volunteer Fire Department, Ferry County Sheriff’s Department, Washington Department of Natural Resources, USDA Forest Service, USDI Bureau of Land Management, Province of Ontario, Canada.

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Time passes slowly up here in the mountains...
Remnants of the White Mountain Fire 24 years after the blaze. Note the dense stand of young lodge pole pine under the fire snags of the last lodge pole forest.
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Post 2014 and 2015 Historic Fire Seasons:
2014 was the beginning of two significant and historic wildfire seasons in Washington State, both of which had their parts of their epicenters in the Okanogan Highlands. In 2014 Washington State had 1,480 wildfires that scorched 386,972 acres of land.
In 2015 the wildfire season was even worse for Washington State with 1,500 fires burning over 1,600,000 acres within the scope of the 2015 wildfires more than 16,000 structures were threatened with ultimately 675 lost. Three firefighters were killed battling the blazes and many others injured.
While an on-the-job injury had previously forced an early retirement from WA DNR I continue to serve as fire chief for Ferry/Okanogan Fire Protection District #14, and as such I coordinated initial response to the Stickpin Fire which ultimately led to being assigned as liaison for the State Fire Marshal to the Kettle Complex. Below are a few images from that engagement.
Stickpin Fire, named after Stickpin Mountain deep in the Kettle River Range started in mid August of 2015 when not only the local area but most of the region had already been stripped of fire resources committed to other blazes. This fire started in a rugged, non-accessible location. The efforts of the Colville National Forest to use air suppression to hold the fire in place failed and soon a major conflagration spread to the north threating several communities.
Stickpin fire threatening a home along the Boulder/Deer Creek Road near Boulder Pass. Firefighters applied fire suppression foam to house and deck area and assisted homeowners in evacuation. The home survived.

Stickpin fire taken from the deck of the home shown in the image above.
For weeks on end the Okanogan Highlands area was under a pall of dense wildfire smoke. Hundreds of citizens evacuated from their homes, thousands of firefighters were delopyed to the firelines and everyone was breathing these toxic fumes.

Fallen Firefighters - A tough day in camp when the news reached us of the three firefighters who died on the Twisp Fire
One of many helicopters assigned to the Kettle Complex Fire in northern Ferry County. THe smoke pall thickened to the point where the fleet of rotors were ground most of the day for nearly five days a week.
S.E.A.T. Single Engine Air Tanker coming in for a drop on the Kettle Complex Fire.
One of the large rotors coming with a bucket load of water during the fire fight on the Kettle Complex fire.
Fire Camp, one of many. Firefighters spent a lot of nights away from the comforts of home fighting fires across the west.
THank YOu Firefighters - signs like this sprung up in many communities across the Okanogan Highlands and beyond.
The staff of Ferry/Okanogan FPD 14 discovered these signs adjacent to the Curlew Fire Station.
More to come - check back soon...


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