ROCHESTER — The first in a set of three controlled burns began in South Thurston County on Thursday when the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife put the torch to several sections of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area.
Thursday’s fires were set on southern tract of Scatter Creek Wildfire Unit near to the area where a wildfire swept across the prairie in 2017. Smoke was likely visible from Interstate 5 at times during the burns, but crews were vigilant to keep smoke away from nearby neighborhoods as well as the freeway.
Darric Lowery, a WDFW wildlife area manager who worked as the project lead, noted that heavy rains earlier in the week helped create a “good window” for the prescribed burns. He added that a round of rain Thursday night helped to put the fires to bed.
The goal of the burns is to control the spread of non-native and invasive vegetation species in the interest of overall prairie health. The burns are conducted each year around the end of summer and the beginning of fall when wildfire conditions have subsided but before the ground becomes too saturated.
“If we can get about three days of burning we’re pretty happy, but we don’t always get the weather, the conditions on the ground, or the crews to make it happen,” noted Lowery.
Lowery noted that decisions on where exactly to light the fires are determined by on the ground analysis. He said that each burn will result in the loss of some sensitive species, so the goal is to find patches that are particularly dense with problematic plants.
“We’re looking at conditions on the ground. Invasive vegetation that’s in there, grasses and all that. We want to be able to burn as many invasives as we can but not burn in an area where we have a good deal of sensitive species utilizing it,” Lowery said. “We’re monitoring it and surveying it to see how those populations are doing and monitoring the ground conditions and vegetation to see where we can get the best bang for our buck for both land management and then from a species benefit.”
By reducing the number of non-native plants present in the prairie, there is more room available for endemic plants to sprout. Those plants are vital to the existence of numerous species of pollinators and wildlife, including endangered butterflies and pocket gophers. Lowery said that Scotch broom and tall oat grass are two of the most prolific plants that should not be present on the prairie.
“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,” Lowery said.
The areas targeted by the controlled burns varied in size from under 1 acre to about 10 acres. The public was kept away from the portions of the wildlife area located closest to the burn sites for safety.
The prescribed burns are conducted in concert between the WDFW, the Department of Natural Resources, the Center for Natural Lands Management and Joint Base Lewis-McChord Fish and Wildlife and paid for through grants. Additional burns have been prescribed for the West Rocky Prairie Wildlife Area as well as the northern unit of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area. Those burns may be started anytime between now and the middle of October, depending on conditions.