Living in Fire Country: Forest Thinning for Lumber, Increased Biodiversity and Fire Safety

Reader Contribution by Eron Drew
1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

I never thought I would find myself living with fire. I grew up in the Mid-West; a part of the country that rarely experiences the risk of this type of natural hazard. My first real experience with a run-away fire didn’t occur until the drive out to Washington when we relocated in 2000. That year, a good deal of the west was burning. We had to alter our trip on several occasions because the places we had intended on camping were not accessible given the risk of combustion.  At one point during our drive, a fire swept across the Montana freeway that we were traveling on. Small patches of golden grassland were still actively burning all around us. Large blackened quarter sections were smoldering along both sides of the road and the sun was blood-red; partially obscured by the smoke billowing up from a nearby hillside.

My second fire experience was the day we moved to Central Washington. Again, the sun was nearly blotted out by a thick black cloud hanging over the sky from a plume originating only a few miles away from our new home. Surely this was an anomaly? Being an outsider in a new landscape, it still had not occurred to me that fire was a very real and very regular part of the landscape of my new home.

Now, years later, I have lived through many fire seasons. I no longer associate lightning storms with muggy Mid-West evenings and drenching rains. Instead, lightning to me signals the beginning of a season dominated by vigilance and preparedness. This only became more apparent when, in the summer of 2014, the watershed just to the East of us was caught unaware by a series of unfortunate weather events that led to an explosive fire which nearly destroyed several towns and burned hundreds of houses, outbuildings and farms in a matter of hours. As I am writing this, our neighboring community is suffering a similar fate; high winds are driving a firestorm across the land. Over two dozen homes have already been lost….

And here I sit, at the beginning of fire season yet again with thunder heads threatening to form above me. I now view fire for what it is; a significant annual player in the formation of my surroundings. Fire has been here much longer than I. The plants out my back door have evolved to live with and even depend upon regular, low-intensity burns. It is they who are comfortable in this landscape and accept it for what it is. It is I who am the uncomfortable stranger.

But I am getting better at living within this cycle, and each year we as a family undertake another task that brings us closer to finding harmony within this volatile environment. Probably our greatest commitment to preparing our homestead for fire season has been our massive forest thinning project. For the remainder of this post, I hope to explain a little more about the benefits of undertaking such a task. In future posts, I will share the pros and cons of thinning versus logging. But for now, I want to share a little of our own personal story and the positive changes that have occurred around us because we have chosen to maintain a healthy forest.

Our Forest Stand

We own 10 acres of mixed hillside forest and flat grassy floodplain. The parcel that we purchased was logged nearly 100 years ago and allowed to re-grow with no oversight or management. Although historically it harbored cedar, it is now dominated by Ponderosa Pine along with Douglas Fir and several other coniferous species of mixed economic value. Understory vegetation on the hillside section includes Ocean Spray, several mountain maples, some willow, False Box, Thimble Berry and (post-thinning) a large host of wildflowers, mushrooms and pine grass.

The former property owner put little effort into maintaining the health of the forest on the property and thus we inherited a parcel that had accumulated nearly 18 to 24 inches of sticks, needles and other debris that covered the forest floor in an unpassable, tangled mat. In addition, the re-grown stand had never been properly thinned. A majority of these mature 100 year old trees were no larger around than 8 or 10 inches in diameter at a density of several hundred trees per acre. Mistletoe was rampant throughout the stand and wildlife was nearly non-existent since penetration into the interior of the forest was close to impossible without a chainsaw.

We spent the first 3 years on our property, working our woods in both the late fall and early spring when fire danger was low and we were able to safely run machinery and burn off our slash piles. A small layer of snow helped to protect the understory vegetation and to keep our burn piles in place. Nearly every weekend we would head up into the woods; my husband with a chainsaw and pole pruner and me with a lopper, pruning saw, rake and some work gloves. Sometimes, a friend or two would join us as well.

Each season, we would carve out another notch of forest and open up the spacing between the trees. My husband, being a botanist, would evaluate every section of forest that we worked and would leave the healthiest trees while taking out the sick, diseased and stunted. He also did his best to leave a mixed-age stand, along with a few dead standing trees for wildlife habitat. As he worked, we would pile the slash in the clearings and wait for favorable weather for burning off the excess.

The forest here is different from the one I grew up in. In the Mid-West, warm summer precipitation accelerates natural decomposition and it is rare to find an accumulation of dead wood. Historically in the West, the natural cycle of dealing with downed branches and dead growth were regular intervals of low-intensity fire. Here, in our monsoonal climate, we do not receive enough summer moisture for all of this forest by-product to decompose. And so, with the suppression of fires at the turn of the century, this excess biomass has accumulated into thick mats of tinder.

Now, fires reach catastrophic proportions due to this back-stock of burnable material on the forest floor. As forest stewards on our property, we decided that to reduce our risk of catastrophe, we needed to deal with all of this tinder ourselves. My job was to work out in a radius from the central fire and pick away at the endless layers of old forest debris with my rake, my pruning saw and my lopper. I would work down to the duff layer, leaving the smallest sticks and some of the larger logs and stumps to decompose on their own.

To date, we have only cleared an acre and a half of the hillside above our house. This is truly a long-term project. Each felled tree can take hours to clean up. However, all of the work has been worth it. The most amazing transition has occurred within this thinned and cleaned zone; wildflowers and pine grass are flourishing and spreading since the forest floor is no longer covered with debris. The thinning work has allowed pockets of sunlight to reach the understory and the next generation of tree seedlings are beginning to spring up from the ground. Those mature trees that remained after the thinning have reacted to the additional space by increasing in diameter and height.

Wildlife has returned. We regularly see deer, bear and coyotes moving through our property and have found cat tracks as well; presumably from bobcat and up higher, from cougar. Multiple species of owls can now be heard emanating from the forest above since the additional open space means hunting in the forest is once again a possibility. A large diversity of migratory songbirds call our property home during nesting season and spend the fall and winter feeding on seed heads left behind by the understory vegetation. 

To our benefit, all the usable wood was decked for firewood (a lifetime supply!) or for milling into boards for doors and cabinetry in our house. Many of the trees removed through thinning ended up having an amazingly tight grain, free from knots. These my husband worked up into trim pieces around our interior windows and into molding, bookcases, rails and even a desk. Some of the trees ended up as battens for our siding.

And, the most obvious benefit has been the reduction of our risk to a catastrophic crown fire. By increasing the spacing between trees, high limbing the remaining trees to a height of 15 feet, removing many of the ladder fuels (overgrown brush), reducing the amount of dead ground material and annually brush cutting a perimeter of at least 30 feet from our house, we have come a long way in lessening our home’s exposure to fire.

Certainly, our work is far from complete. There’s another 5 acres of overgrown forest to be worked through and we are still figuring out the logistics of getting some of our decked wood down from the hillside. The forest is always growing back so maintenance is required semi-annually to keep our stand in a ‘park-like’ condition. However, it has become obvious to us that the overall health of our forest has improved dramatically because of our efforts. This alone has made our thinning project worth-while.


Photo 1 Every season, we maintain a 30 foot swath of cleared area around the back of the house to reduce our fire hazard.

Photo 2 Thinned trees decked and ready to be used for lumber or firewood.

Photo 3 Our forest now resembles a ‘park-like’ stand that allows wildlife to travel through and understory vegetation to thrive.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.