SPOKANE – Starting this month, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) plans to conduct controlled burns on parts of two wildlife areas in northeast Washington to reduce wildfire risks and enhance wildlife habitat.
Depending on weather conditions, controlled burns could be conducted as early as March 11 on parts of WDFW’s Sherman Creek Wildlife Area on the west side of Lake Roosevelt in Ferry County and at the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area in Okanogan County.
The controlled burns – planned for March, April and May – will cover about 600 acres, and will be conducted on parcels ranging from 15 acres to several hundred acres, said Dale Swedberg, manager of WDFW’s Sinlahekin Wildlife Area. Additional burns are planned for next fall and the spring of 2014.
Swedberg said the burns in both wildlife areas were delayed from last fall, when burn bans followed by heavy rain prompted WDFW to wait until this year, he said.
“Last year’s wildfires demonstrate the importance of conducting controlled burns,” Swedberg said. “By burning off brush and other fuels, we can reduce the risk of catastrophic, high-intensity wildfires that can destroy wildlife habitat. It’s not a question of whether we’ll have fires on these lands in the future, but rather the degree to which we can reduce the damage they cause.”
The fires are permitted by the Washington Department of Natural Resources only when daily conditions are safe and fires are monitored constantly until they are out. The controlled burns at the two wildlife areas will be coordinated by WDFW’s fire project manager Tom Leuschen, a former U.S. Forest Service fire manager.
Leuschen said WDFW did not receive any complaints about smoke or machinery last spring when the department conducted controlled burns on grasslands and timber-thinning slash in the Sinlahekin Valley as part of an ongoing ecosystem restoration project.
“But where there’s fire, there’s smoke,” Leuschen said. “We will be working to minimize impacts, but smoke could make its way into some communities near these burns.”
Those towns include Kettle Falls and Colville near Sherman Creek, as well as Loomis and Conconully near Sinlahekin. Signs will be posted on the wildlife areas to alert recreationists about the projects. Motorists should use caution and watch for personnel, fire equipment, and smoke on roads in the vicinity of the burns.
Leuschen said WDFW is coordinating with other agencies in the area to provide assistance with the burn, and is using private contractors with bulldozers and other equipment from local communities.
Besides reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfires, controlled burns can improve forage and other habitat for deer, moose, black bear, forest grouse and many other wildlife species, Swedberg said. Just this month, the non-profit Mule Deer Foundation donated a $6,800 trailer to WDFW for hauling and storing equipment and supplies, he said.
Mike Jones, a member of the foundation from Spokane, said funding for the trailer was raised through fund-raising banquets designed to support habitat enhancement, research and conservation-related educational activities.