In a world where we’ve been conditioned to believe that all fire is bad fire, the state of Washington has increasingly found it necessary to play the role of devil’s advocate. That’s because agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are now keen on making use of the age-old tool that had once been all but banished from the landscape.
Physical evidence and oral history confirm that native populations have been using seasonal burns on the prairies of South Puget Sound for thousands of years. Some estimates indicate that those practices could reach back as far as 10,000 years as Native American tribes manicured a bountiful new world out of the rocky till left behind by receding glaciers. That evidence comes in the form of history passed down by members of the Chehalis and Nisqually tribes, and other area tribes, as well as in layers of charcoal that can be found in predictable banded swaths across classic prairie formations such as the Mima Mounds.
It’s with that in mind that state agencies have turned back the clock in order to embrace fire on the landscape once again, albeit on a much smaller scale. Most recently, and locally, the WDFW has been heading an effort to burn portions of the Scatter Creek and West Rocky Prairie wildlife areas, near Rochester and Tenino, respectively. On Sept. 12 the WDFW, in conjunction with several other agencies, conducted burns on five units of the southern portion of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area totalling 13 acres. Then, on Sept. 25 another 10 units totaling 37.4 acres were torched on the West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area. Additional burns are possible in those areas through Oct. 15 as conditions allow.
Darric Lowery, a WDFW wildlife area manager in charge of the ongoing South Thurston County prairie burns, says that intermittent fires are once again proving to be an integral part of the unique South Sound prairie ecosystems.
“These are all glacial outwash so they are rocky, dry soils. The Native Americans for thousands of years would do burns by themselves. They’d light fires, they’d learn what the right conditions are and their goal was to keep the native forbs there that they would harvest, like camas. They would also burn into the woodlands where there were a lot of oak trees for the harvesting of acorns. If you get the grass and vegetation out of the way it’s easier to harvest what your food resource is. There was also some benefits to species and they use it for hunting and things like that,” reiterated Lowery.
Lowery added that the state resumed intentional burning about 30 years ago and the WDFW jumped on board with the land management practice about a decade and a half ago. However, even during times of prohibition on the use of fire as a tool, nature has a way of forging its own path.
“I’m sure there were years of gaps but there were also natural wildfires that were coming through. Before homes surrounded this area fires would take off because of lightning,” Lowery reasoned. “Even though it wasn’t a management practice fires were just on the landscape naturally.”
That reality was never more evident than during the August of 2017 when 345 acres of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area went up in flames all at once. That wildfire burned several buildings, including homes. These days seasonal burns are conducted primarily as a means to control the spread of non-native and invasive species like Scotch broom from taking over the valuable prairie lands. However, those intentions only go so far in quieting the fears of the neighbors who have seen firsthand the destruction that can occur when fire gets loose on the prairie.
“We’ve had wildfires kick up and out in this area and there’s a lot of people who are on edge, including myself,” Lowery said.
He says he attempts to combat those fears by undertaking extensive community outreach prior to any scheduled burning activity. Lowery also noted that crews always strive to keep smoke from inundating neighborhoods or Interstate 5 due to health and safety concerns. One benefit he attempts to highlight to the neighbors is that regular burning of the prairie on the edges of the fire season serves to reduce the fuel load in the event that a wildfire does strike up during the heat of the summer.
“That’s some of the historic usage in both forested and prairie environments. If you have more frequent, less intense fires it helps create breaks in the fuel so that when there’s a drought and conditions are conducive to big fires we can take advantage of those breaks,” explained Lowery. “It does help with some folks. Other folks it doesn’t matter. Certainly years where there’s a lot of smoke in the air, us adding to it doesn’t help.”
At the end of the last ice age the habitat of the South Sound prairies was primarily grass land with intermittent oak savannas. Those grass lands were essential to maintaining healthy populations of elk, deer and other game animals, as well as edible and medicinal roots, fruits and vegetables that sustained a burgeoning tribal population.
With the help of that oral history and the physical evidence left behind on the prairies, researchers have surmised that fires were traditionally set by Native Americans during the moderate, and damp, conditions of spring and fall.
Those sustained efforts were so successful that European settlers to the area are said to have marveled at the open patches of meadow and the myriad food stuffs that seemed to magically spring from the earth. Some accounts state that the deer and elk populations on the prairies between Oakville and Grand Mound were once as thick as the confined cows and sheep that graze those converted pasture lands today.
However, today native prairies are considered to be one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States with a historic range of more than 150,000 acres in the Northwest alone now reduced by about 90 percent. The stats are even more dire in Western Washington, where coastal prairies have been rapidly lost to development and agriculture. For reference, the Mima Mounds and Glacial Heritage prairie reserves north of Rochester were once part of a contiguous 3,200 acre prairie that was mapped in 1855. At that time, when Fort Henness was being built, there were only a few scattered trees that survived on the Grand Mound prairie. Today, by comparison, there are so many trees on the former prairie lands that the namesake mound itself is a mystery to most who travel through the area because it is so well camouflaged by ubiquitous evergreen trees. In total, coastal prairies are believed to make up just three percent of their former footprint. Those remaining prairie lands now represent essential habitat to native flora and fauna.
Several factors are believed to be at play for the loss of prairie lands over time. First, as the climate continued to cool and dampen it became harder to keep the coniferous forests at bay. That problem was only exacerbated by the arrival of European settlers who carried diseases that decimated the area’s indigenous populations, leaving fewer individuals to set and manage the fires. Making matters worse, those same settlers mistakenly believed that the bountiful prairies were a self-proliferating system free of human manipulation.
Lowery admitted that the Scatter Creek wildfire of 2017, while unfortunate and destructive by degree, did usher in an assortment of side benefits to the sensitive prairie. As with any fire, even controlled ones, there were unavoidable losses of important habitat. However, as the land has regenerated itself over the last two years.
“It’s an unfortunate situation but there are opportunities that come from it. We lost a lot of the population of Taylor Checkerspot butterfly but they’re starting to recolonize in a different area,” said Lowery. “What we did gain was we got a large area burned. A downside of that is we had to get a lot of resources in. A lot of seeding, a lot of vegetation management and a lot of crews to help manage the site post burn.”
Lowery noted that in addition to the fire suppression resources an additional $600,000 was requested for prairie restoration efforts.
“Probably now people can hardly tell the difference. Within about a year we started seeing that black fade away and then this year people couldn’t tell that there was a burn in here,” added Lowery, who pointed out a line across the prairie where green Scotch Broom no longer grows that marks the edge of the fire.
Due to their protected status the mazama pocket gopher and Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly receive the bulk of the attention when it comes to species who benefit from the preserved prairie habitat. However, they are far from the only species who seek refuge and sustenance from the eden of the prairie. Birds, and bees, and bears, and deer also frequent the open prairies where native forbs and grasses grow. Balsamroot is one endemic plant found in the South Sound prairies, along with wood fescues and other bunch grasses. On the contrary, Scotch broom and tall out grass are two of the most problematic sprouts found on the prairie.
“This is a backing fire so we don’t let the wind push it along,” explained Josh Cook, a biologist and prairie restoration specialist for the WDFW. As he observed the Scatter Creek burn from the front lines back in early September, Cook noted that the wildfire of 2017 was a “head fire” that swept across the prairie until it burnt itself out when it reached the well established woodline. He says that the goal is to burn at a rate that eats up the above ground greenage while leaving the roots of native flora intact underground.
“Most everything will come back depending on how deep it burns,” added Cook, who estimates he has participated in about 25 large scale controlled burns during his career. “The weeds will pop up first and then we can spray them out and we’ll get a better native composition afterward.”
With both plant health and neighborly relations on the forefront of his mind Lowery agreed with Cook’s assessments.
“It’s all controlled. We want as much consumption of the Scotch broom as we can. We want as much consumption of the tall oat grass as we can. So one, we’re getting all of the seed that was dropped out that year, getting that burned out on top, but we’re not burning so deep that we’re burning up all the roots of our fescue and everything,” Lowery explained.
He added that the prairie restoration work is not a “one and done” sort of effort. Once the land is cleared with fire the state returns with herbicide to keep the unwanted weeds at bay before coming back again to reseed native grasses and plant “plugs” of native trees and shrubs.
“Those are native forbs and grasses that are actually collected from a variety of prairies in the South Sound and they are actually grown at the Violet Prairie Nursery.”
On Wednesday Rachel Blomker, communications manager for the WDFW, noted that it’s very likely that conditions will not be conducive to additional burning efforts this year, particularly on the North section of Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. However, if lessons from the past get their due credence, fires are likely to remain a staple of the unique prairie ecosystem for years to come.