Healthy Forests = Healthy Washington

Forest management practices benefit fish, wildlife, and people

Keeping up with wildfire news in the Pacific Northwest can be a depressing endeavor that can feel overwhelming. You may wonder what is being done to address and prevent devastating wildfires in Washington.

At the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), we take proactive action to ensure the landscapes we manage are healthy and resilient to support a diversity of fish, wildlife, and people.

Three ways we restore and protect forests

Forest 30 days after prescribed burn treatment.

Since 2014, WDFW has used a variety of forest management tools to mitigate risks and restore forests to their historic, healthier states. Restored forests decrease severe wildfire risk, improve health and habitat for fish and wildlife species, and protect homes and local communities.

WDFW’s forest management work is an ongoing process that requires regular maintenance in many cases after the initial work is done, but the payoff and benefits are worth the effort. Of the forest management tools available, the Department focuses mostly on forest thinning, prescribed burning, and creating fuel breaks.

Thinned forests are far more resilient against severe wildfire damage and provide better habitat and forage for Washington’s wildlife species. The Department uses both commercial thinning and non-commercial thinning.

  • Commercial thinning is conducted in partnership with logging companies. Projects provide wood to lumber and paper mills, providing support for local communities by contributing directly to the economy.
  • For non-commercial thinning, the small trees involved in the process have little to no economic value, and work is funded by the state legislature or with grants from partners. Such projects are very labor intensive with most costs going directly towards worker salaries.
Left: An untreated section at the W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area in Eastern Washington. Right: Workers burn slash piles after thinning is complete.

Prescribed burning mimics natural historical fire cycles in forest areas by using low intensity, low-heat fire to burn off excessive fuels and restore quality habitat for wildlife and native vegetation.

Landscape on the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area six days after a prescribed burn, with vegetation already emerging.

A prescribed burn can also limit damage and help crews get control of a wildfire. In 2018, the Boyds Fire burned on the Sherman Creek Wildlife Area. In April of that year, the Department had conducted a prescribed burn treatment on a portion of the land to reduce fuel buildup (refer to the right side of the photo below).

The dozer line built by the Burn Team slowed the spread of the wildfire on the western flanks, and the prescribed burn area changed the fire behavior by lowering flame lengths and intensity, which kept the fire from reaching tree canopies. This provided a safer location for suppression crews to do a direct attack. On the left side of the photo, in the background, you can see evidence of a more intense burn from the wildfire, which caused higher tree mortality and damage.

The land to the right was treated with prescribed burning, while the untreated land to the left burned more intensely and experienced more damage after a wildfire.

A fuel break is a strip of forest with a low amount of fuels on the ground and no low-hanging branches on surrounding trees. When wildfire burns into a fuel break area, it tends to drop lower to the ground and lose some intensity, creeping more slowly across the landscape making it easier for firefighters to stop the fire.

Which management tools are used depend a lot on the current conditions of the landscape, and WDFW’s natural resource management teams plan different approaches to account for potential risks and species management objectives.

Forest health treatment status update

WDFW has treated 20,066 acres of forest since 2014 — that’s a bigger area than a football field stretching from Seattle to Bakersfield, CA! This includes 211,000 tons of fuel reduction from prescribed burns, slash pile burning, and donations to lumber and paper mills.

  • Non-commercial thinning: 8,067 acres
  • Commercial thinning: 6,376 acres
  • Prescribed burning: 5,456 acres*

*Almost all prescribed burns were follow-up treatments to commercial thinning efforts.

About 6.5% of WDFW-managed forests have been treated since 2014. This means that while we’ve put in a lot of good work, and our capacity has grown over the past seven years, there is still much to do to ensure Washington’s forests are healthy and resilient enough to thrive into the future.

In addition to initial treatments, WDFW must continue active management to ensure that restored conditions are maintained into the future. We estimate an ongoing need to revisit 6,000–7,000 acres per year of thinning or burning to maintain healthy forest habitat.

For more information on the work being done on specific WDFW wildlife areas, check out the Department’s forest management story map, which is updated every year.

Logs piled for stream placement after forest thinning effort.

Forest management challenges

Although the above actions are having a huge positive impact on our state’s natural landscapes, it’s not all good news. Despite WDFW’s best efforts, we face several challenges as we work to make our forests healthier and more resilient.

The biggest source of frustration is, as you might expect, wildfire. Wildfires keep burning into planned project areas, resulting in extra work, extra costs, and reduced benefits. About 15% of the forests managed by WDFW have burned in wildfires since 2014. WDFW’s foresters have become skilled at accurately predicting where the next wildfires might strike, but capacity issues and other factors have made it difficult to stay ahead.

2021 brought these issues to the forefront, as there were multiple cases of areas where WDFW was in the early planning stages of treatment, only to have those areas threatened with wildfires before work could be done.

  • Burch Mountain, Chelan County: WDFW was in the process of hiring a logger to thin 152 acres of this unit, but the 12,281-acre Red Apple wildfire burned about half of the planned treatment area.
  • Ramsey, Okanogan County: While WDFW staff members were preparing for prescribed burning on 247 acres of recently thinned forest, the 70,166-acre Cub Creek 2 wildfire burned about a quarter of the planned treatment area. Although recent thinning efforts made it easier for firefighters to stop the fire, a portion of the forest was severely damaged.
  • Asotin Creek, Asotin County: WDFW was planning a 250-acre thinning project on the Asotin Creek Wildlife Area before the Lick Creek wildlife burned all 1,800 acres of forest there. Fortunately, much of the forest will recover quickly due to the fire’s mixed severity.

Another relatively recent challenge for WDFW’s forest management work has been the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed many of the projects planned during the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Very limited prescribed burns occurred during 2020, including just over 30 acres in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area and a small parcel of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. In addition, 2021 was a record low for the Department’s thinning efforts since its forest management strategy was adopted in 2014.

However, despite the setback, the Prescribed Fire Program was able to perform burns on 1,372 acres in 2021 with very positive results on the landscape. Our hope is that the pandemic will wain and our forest management capacity will continue to grow so we can make up for delays.

Crews perform prescribed burn on the Shillapoo Wildlife Area in October 2021.

Where do we go from here?

The challenges facing us as we work to restore our state’s healthy forests and reduce the impacts of extreme wildfires are very real. However, the good news is that we’ve witnessed the positive impacts that our work can have on the landscape.

Thinned and prescribed burned areas are more resilient in the face of wildfires, and they provide better habitat and forage for Washington’s wildlife species. Despite setbacks in 2020 and 2021, WDFW’s forest health management team is planning to make more progress in 2022. There is a lot of hope as we head into the future!

The vast majority of wildfires in North America are caused by people. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, of the 58,950 wildfires that occurred during 2020, 53,563 were human-caused. That’s 91%! Common causes include unattended campfires, fireworks, firearms, negligently discarded cigarettes, and acts of intentional arson.

One way you can help with this issue is to recreate responsibly when you go outdoors. Aspire to leave no trace and make the places you visit better for the next people who visit. Talk about the best practices with your friends and family to spread the word.

Together, through good outdoor recreation and forest management practices, we can create a Washington where healthy forests thrive and people can continue to enjoy the state’s natural spaces.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.