By JESSE MAJOR staff writer
401 N. Main Street
Ellensburg, WA 98926
Volunteers worked Saturday to thin out the understory along a dirt road near Moonlight Canyon on Saturday.
The goal was to reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire, said Scott Nicolai, a member of the Mule Deer Foundation.
“We are taking gunpowder out of the powder keg,” he said. “When it does burn — and it will burn — there will be less fuel, the trees will be spaced out a little bit and hopefully it won’t come through and kill all the trees.”
The area is on state Department of Fish and Wildlife land in the L.T. Murray Wildlife area near Elk Heights.
Small Douglas fir trees have crowded the forest understory, greatly increasing the risk for devastating fire, he said. He said that 200 years ago, fires used to thin out the understory every 10 to 15 years, adding it is not natural for the forest floor to be this crowded.
“Those forests evolved with fire,” he said. “Fires came through on a regular basis and cleaned out the understory.”
Millions of acres of forests on public lands need to be thinned, especially east of the Cascades, he said.
When the forest floor is overcrowded, trees can’t grow big enough to survive a fire. Nicolai said that some of the larger trees in the area where crews worked Saturday could be about the same age as some of smallest trees.
“These trees are remarkably old,” he said, pointing to trees that had a diameter less than 1 foot.
Reducing ladder fuel
Small trees are called ladder fuel, which allows what would otherwise be a manageable fire to climb into the overstory.
Shana Winegeart, also a member of the Mule Deer Foundation and manager of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area, said that by clearing out the Douglas fir trees, the hope is that a fire in the area wouldn’t climb the larger trees.
“If you get a fire in the grass, it climbs up those trees,” she said. “But if you look at the old trees, they don’t have as many low branches so you could get low fires that just burn up the grass and don’t burn up the trees.”
Nicolai described the effort as a win-win situation. Volunteers were able to take cleared logs home for firewood.
“The forest wins because … it will be what we call a well-behaved fire, just on the ground,” he said. “Meanwhile, people are taking some of that surplus home and letting it dry out for a year and burning it in their EPA-certified woodstove next year.”
Volunteers make it possible
Winegeart said the effort would have been impossible without the volunteers who helped.
“Some of them are here for Master Hunter hour credits, some are here to get firewood, some are here just because they like to volunteer and protect the resources,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what their reasoning is, it’s just great to have them come out and we get so much more done.”
She said the Mule Deer Foundation doesn’t have enough money to do these types of treatments often and because they are small treatments, they don’t pay for themselves.
“But if we have volunteers do it we can get an amazing amount done,” she said. “With volunteers, we can come in and do this with precision, especially next to a road where you get a lot of fire hazards.”
Winegeart said many fires start along roads, where drivers may throw a cigarette out their window, or set up camp and have a fire.