Exploring the Benefits of Prescribed Fire - Columbia Land Trust
Columbia Land Trust staff participate in Learn and Burn workshop

(This is the first piece in our series on prescribed fire. Read the second blog here.)

Earlier this summer, Columbia Land Trust stewardship staff participated in a three-day “Learn and Burn” workshop in Glenwood, Washington hosted by Mount Adams Resource Stewards (MARS). The event was designed to help meet the growing need for accessible, introductory prescribed fire training for private landowners and non-governmental natural resource professionals. 

Fire is an inextricable part of life in the Pacific Northwest, and low-intensity prescribed burns offer an effective strategy to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and restore health to ecosystems that rely on periodic fire. Low-intensity fires help promote tree health and increase biodiversity in many of our grassland and forest ecosystems. Indigenous communities perform cultural burns to restore land, promote ecosystem health, and sustain traditional food sources.

However, many decades of fire suppression, combined with a changing climate, have led to an increase in high severity wildfires of unprecedented size.

Fire provides a variety of ecosystem services in fire-adapted and fire-dependent landscapes. One of these benefits is reducing the buildup of dead vegetation that accumulates over time and can make wildfires more intense. For example, Ponderosa pine trees replace their needles about every three years. Imagine the build-up of needle litter on the ground after 100 years of fire suppression! Studies have also shown that low intensity fires can lead to larger resin ducts in ponderosa pine trees. Strong resin production helps trees defend themselves from bark beetles by “pitching out” invading beetles and larvae. As part of our commitment to Columbia River ecosystems and communities, Columbia Land Trust has been working to further our knowledge of the benefits and risks of prescribed fire as we consider implementing it on some of our natural areas in the East Cascades.  

The first two days of the workshop covered a variety of topics including how prescribed fire differs from wildfire, an overview of cultural fire uses from the Yakama Nation Fuels Management team, understanding weather and weather resources while planning and implementing prescribed fire, smoke management, fire tools and techniques, and burn planning and permitting.

On the final day of the workshop, participants had the chance to gain hands-on experience by participating in a 25-acre prescribed burn on land owned and managed by MARS. The morning began with a small crew freshening up the control lines, which are designated areas with limited fuels (flammable materials) that enclose the burn site and contain the fire within the burn boundary — in this case existing dirt roads and a highway. After the burn boss secured smoke permission from Washington State officials and made the necessary notifications, tasks were assigned to workshop participants during the morning briefing. Then the burn boss and ignition team lit a test fire to assess whether current conditions and fire effects would meet overall burn objectives and align with anticipated fire behavior. Once it was determined that the test fire met objectives, the ignition team began to ignite the rest of the unit, while the holding team monitored the perimeter and made sure there were no fire escapes.

By early afternoon, the burn was complete and “mop up” began. Mop up is the process of putting out smoldering fires, and closely monitoring the site for several days after the burn.  

“The workshop was an incredibly valuable experience,” said Columbia Land Trust Natural Area Manager Adam Lieberg. “The Land Trust team is interested in utilizing prescribed fire at several of our natural areas in the East Cascades, and this was an important step on our journey to becoming prescribed fire practitioners.” 

Another neat aspect of this event is that MARS previously completed a burn at the same site around 2016 and this was the first follow-up burn. Low-intensity prescribed fire is more effective when it occurs at regular return intervals that mimic historic burn patterns in these dry, low-elevation forests, so this was an exciting moment to witness.  

Other workshop attendees included representatives from the National Weather Service, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Yakama Nation Fuels Management, and other regional land managers. Opportunities like this that bring together experts and foster knowledge-sharing and cross-ownership collaboration are essential to restoring fire dependent ecosystems in this region.  

“A key takeaway I had from the workshop is that with thoughtful planning, the right resources, and a good team, using prescribed fire as a land management tool is achievable and productive,” said Land Trust Stewardship Director Ian Sinks. “With the right preparation, burn day runs smoothly and is only mildly exciting. There are no surprises. Which is exactly how you want it to be.”

See small captions for descriptions of the prescribed burn process.

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