Friendly fires: Training exchange teaches controlled burn strategies in Roslyn

ROSLYN, Wash. — A pillar of smoke rose up from the forest north of Roslyn once again last Thursday.  


This time, though, rather than fear and possible evacuations, the gray cloud brought comfort and perhaps even some measure of celebration for residents of the small town in the foothills of the Cascades. The controlled flames on 12 acres heading up to Roslyn Ridge represented a collaborative training effort unprecedented in Washington to proactively fight dangerous wildfires through prescribed burns.


“The idea is to fill in those gaps where we just don’t have enough capacity and expertise to safely implement prescribed fire,” lead organizer and coordinator for the Washington Prescribed Fire Council Kara Karboski said. “The forest service does a lot of burning. They have a lot of that expertise but our state and local resources don’t necessarily and so we recognized that and we needed to find some sort of program to help fill that need.”


A prescribed fire training exchange, also known as TREX, fit the bill perfectly for Washington as it tries to catch up to other states in the use of a valuable tool for forest health. Washington’s first TREX included representatives from 14 agencies and four states dedicated to spreading knowledge of how to fight fire with fire.  (VIEW ORIGINAL POST)


Enlisting more partners

Discussions began around Christmas 2015, following the two worst fire seasons in the state’s history.


Conversations eventually reached Washington D.C., leading to the allocation of federal funds for forest restoration. Nine months of planning went into the two-week TREX hosted by The Nature Conservancy and the Washington Prescribed Fire Council, along with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.


Firefighters and officials lived together for two weeks through Oct. 5 as the group burned 500 acres on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest near Plain before moving on to 100 acres of Nature Conservancy preserve near Moses Coulee. Finally, it moved to the property north of Roslyn, where the original plan called for 59 acres before the decision to stop after a smaller burn.


“Hopefully people are comfortable with it and realize its value,” said The Nature Conservancy’s fire manager for its Indiana chapter, Chad Bladow, who teaches at exchanges across the country. “Over time we can build that up and do more and more acres and help build the forest health and just the protection of the forest from wildfires.”


He stressed the importance of awareness in Washington, where controlled burns were used on 131,752 acres from 2002-2014, compared to 287,515 in Montana, 385,314 in Idaho and 728,892 in Oregon during the same timeframe, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. State legislators responded in 2016 with the passage of House Bill 2928, the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project, designed to provide funding and momentum for prescribed fire.


The Nature Conservancy’s Ryan Haulgo, in collaboration with the Forest Service, determined more than 2.7 million acres in Washington need active treatment, either through burning or logging. The Conservancy’s director of forest restoration and fire, Reese Lolley, said reaching those goals will be a long process, but the training exchange offers a key step forward by providing necessary qualifications and experience to more people.


“It’s kind of like a mentoring or peer-to-peer type (exercise),” Lolley said. “Then if they meet certain elements of that job, then they get signed off on those and then they become a qualified personnel on the fire.”


Prescribed burns also give firefighters the opportunity in a more controlled environment to learn various duties that can be applied to wildfires, enhancing an agency’s suppression capabilities. Washington Fire Advisory Committee member Tony Craven, a firefighter for 20 years before becoming the Natural Resource Advisor at Suncadia near Cle Elum, said the exchange also provides a chance to sit back and see how fire behaves.


Keeping Roslyn safe

Signs in front of businesses and homes in Roslyn and Cle Elum thanked firefighters, and Roslyn mayor Brent Hals acknowledged the importance of their work at a recent city council meeting.


The city’s emergency management director, Chris Martin, appreciates the positive support for the project that wouldn’t have happened without his contributions. Over the last five years, he purchased 140 acres of land between the city-owned Roslyn Urban Forest and The Nature Conservancy’s land further up the ridge to prevent development in the area.


Conversations with The Nature Conservancy led Martin to offer his land for the TREX, and he hired a contractor to prepare the forest with a machine thin. The nearly 37,000 Jolly Mountain Fire this summer forced Roslyn to create a new emergency fire line on the property, only further illustrating the need for restoration.


“The Jolly Mountain Fire, (The Forest Service) spent $25 million on that,” said Martin, who owns Basecamp Books, which hosted an interactive presentation titled “The Era of Megafires” last Friday. “$25 million would have treated thousands of acres like this, so we wouldn’t have been worried about it and then fire in the wilderness area can just burn.”


Bladow said 26 people came together for the final controlled burn of the TREX Karboski hopes will serve as a blueprint for interagency cooperation going forward. Along with others, she hopes prescribed fire can increase the pace and scale of forest restoration when combined with other strategies, including thinning and fire adapted communities.

“I think it was a success,” Karboski said. “What I’ve heard from the participants is that they got a lot out of it, and ultimately for the training exchange that’s why we did this.”



(photo by John Marshall, The Nature Conservancy)

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