Prescribed Burning in Puget Sound

- Blog

The Center for Natural Lands Management is scaling up the use of prescribed fire as a powerful conservation and restoration tool for Puget Sound prairies.

Burn crew
Center for Natural Land Management's Burn Crew for 2017 Season

by Gabrielle Spickard, Center for Natural Lands Management (gspickard@cnlm.org)

The South Sound Ecological Fire Program is a partner-driven effort with the capacity to use prescribed fire as a powerful conservation and restoration tool at a landscape level. The program, led by the Center for Natural Lands Management and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, has scaled up dramatically to meet the ecological restoration needs of the region, growing from one to two burns annually before 2008 to over 90 burns in 2017.

As habitat conversion and urbanization continue to blur the line between “nature” and human-inhabited developed land, fire is typically seen, at best, as a nuisance to be quickly extinguished before it turns into a bigger problem, or at worst, as a dangerous and powerful force to be reckoned with. However, many types of environments depend on regular fires to healthily function. Many species have evolved over time to need fire for crucial life events and the entire frameworks of some ecosystems are shaped and structured by regular fire.

Prairies are one notable type of fire-reliant ecosystem. While prairies aren’t what usually come first to mind when thinking about western Washington, these ecosystems are an important facet of the region and support a unique, biodiverse web of life. However, prairies are exceedingly rare in the South Sound – only 10% of original prairie environment remains in this area at all, with an even smaller 3% of these residual lands in functional condition.

Historically, prairies were maintained by both natural and anthropogenic fires to keep large trees at bay and resist the spread of invasive weeds and shrubs. Upon increased European settlement around the mid-19th century, fire suppression, land development, conifer forest succession, and encroachment of invasive species led to the degradation of prairie lands. Since our South Sound program focuses on the restoration and conservation of prairie ecosystems, fire is an indispensable land management tool for us.

Final ignitions at JBLM
Mt. Rainier watches over a CNLM crew completing final ignitions on a unit at JBLM.

Our collaborative Puget Sound Ecological Fire Program has had a rich and successful history. The current program now spans many areas in South and North Sound, along with several locations in Oregon. Last year was notable for our burn program, as outlined in our most recent annual report. Despite 2017 being the hottest, driest, and smokiest summer on record for the Puget Sound region, we completed an impressive 80 burns on seven different Puget Sound properties totaling to 2,037 acres. CNLM also assisted on 13 additional burns in Oregon totaling 1,442 acres. This is especially remarkable given the limited opportunities we had for burning, given the regular interruptions throughout the summer due to unfavorable conditions and poor air quality. We focused burns on controlling invasive shrubs and noxious weeds, and preparing the area for threatened and endangered species habitat, namely for the Mazama pocket gopher, the Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly, and the streaked horned lark.

While prescribed burning on prairies has a strong historical precedent, we also strive to keep our burn program innovative. Our burn program supports a number of fire-oriented scientific research projects through a variety of organizations and entities, which have resulted in numerous publications and produced valuable scholarship that contributes to our collective knowledge of the variability and effects of fire on ecosystem restoration. We also stress the importance of collaboration through expansion of and collaboration between firefighter programs, outreach efforts at local and community, state, and eco-regional scales, and the establishment of training and working partnerships with fire, restoration, and other environmental entities in order to continue with and expand on our program’s work. For example, in 2017, our program worked with the Pacific Rim Institute, the Whidbey Camano Land Trust, and The Nature Conservancy in Oregon to conduct burns.

The 2017 season culminated on a high note – the Society of Ecological Restoration Northwest recognizing the hard work of the South Sound fire program with the “Program of the Year Award”, along with highlighting the work of Mason McKinley, burn boss and fire program director, by awarding him their annual “Special Award”. We hope to continue and expand the contributions of our burn program to prairie restoration and conservation, fire research, fire-oriented land management strategies, outreach, and partnership building.

Drone footage from a late-August burn on PRI lands in the north Sound.