Lightning shattered the hills surrounding the Colville Indian Reservation late in the night of July 12, 2021. By the next morning, wind-driven flames had devoured more than 10,000 acres near Nespelem in north central Washington.
“It hit so unexpectedly that it destroyed at least seven structures including family homes,” says Linda McLean, Washington State University Extension director for the Colville Reservation. “The fire killed wild horses on the range and livestock in pastures with nowhere to go. It burned within yards of the Tribal Government building and was very scary for everybody.”
The Chuweah Creek fire was one of five blazes ignited that night and led to the evacuation of the Nespelem community as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Government Center. Sweeping across the reservation, the combined infernos eventually threatened the towns of Keller and Inchelium.
“The power was out for several days,” says McLean, who is an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Her work as an Extension educator includes helping the reservation respond to emergency situations.
“Many people lost the food stored in their refrigerators and freezers,” she says. “As Native people, this loss was even more significant as many of the traditional and cultural foods that they had gathered, picked, or hunted and fished were spoiled and could not be used.”
McLean says wildfires in this region have been steadily increasing. “In 2015, we had the largest wildfire we have ever seen on the Colville Reservation, burning 255,000 acres,” she says. “Well, in 2016, we got another large one, and they’ve continued every year since.”
Similar stories are playing out across the American West as catastrophic wildfires, driven by a century of fire suppression policies and escalating climate change, continue to ravage the land.
Last January, the Biden administration unveiled a $50 billion plan to help address areas most at risk of wildfire, including parts of Washington. The funding will double the amount of tree and vegetation thinning as well as the use of controlled burning. The move supplements a recent $328 million investment by Washington state.
US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told PBS NewsHour this new effort “will require a paradigm shift within the US Forest Service, from an agency devoted to stamping out fires à la Smokey Bear, into one that uses what Native Americans call ‘good fire’ on forests and rangeland to prevent even larger blazes.”
For thousands of years, Indigenous people in North America relied on controlled burns to shape their landscape and ensure a diverse productive habitat. Today, US federal and state forest management agencies are taking a closer look at those methods in hopes of better using prescribed fire as a tool to create more resilient forests.
It’s a familiar concept for Cody Desautel (x’98 Civ. Eng.), an enrolled member and the natural resource director of the Colville Confederated Tribes who oversees fire management within the 1.4-million-acre reservation. His program utilizes prescribed fires, mechanical treatments, forest health treatments, and targeted planting to help maintain a healthy landscape more in line with the practices of his ancestors.
“I started fighting fires in 1995 with the Forest Service and later worked for the tribe while going to college,” he says. “Back then, a big fire was 10,000 acres. If it was more than 10,000 acres, we considered it a rough summer for us.
“Then in 2001, we burned about 100,000 acres. Over the next 20 years, the biggest fires kept getting a little bigger and a little bigger. In 2015, we had a huge fire year that broke all the records here.
“We kinda hoped that was a once in a generation event and that things would slow down but that hasn’t been the case,” says Desautel. “Since 2015, we’ve burned almost 700,000 acres on a 1.4-million-acre reservation.
“Historically, the tribes burned a lot, often in the spring and fall, and having done that for many generations, they knew when and where that was appropriate. The number of acres burned over the last six years probably wouldn’t be that far outside historic fire frequency and intervals.”
But unlike those tribal burns, Desautel and McLean say today’s fires often crown in the trees and burn at such extreme intensities that they destroy the vegetation as well as beneficial microbes and organic matter in the soil. High severity fires scorch the earth, killing everything in their path including the seeds needed to regrow a healthy forest. Often the plants that do survive are tough invasive weed species.
“So, how did we end up in such a dire situation?” asks Sean Alexander (’18 Forestry, ’20 MS Nat. Res. Sci.), WSU Extension forester for northeast Washington in Colville.
“Wildfires are a function of the climate, weather, and fuels,” he says. “Look at the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3 million acres in the Selkirk and Bitterroot Mountains.”
That August, one of the driest in memory when snows melted early and the spring rains never arrived, “America’s worst wildfire” tore through northern Idaho and western Montana, darkening skies with smoke and soot as far away as Boston and Watertown, New York.
According to a US Forest Service article, “The Great Fire of 1910 burned its way into the American conscience as no other fire had done. Not ever before had a forest fire been given headlines so big or so black. It managed to burn its way through public indifference and emerged as a charred but positive landmark along the road to forest protection.”
Indeed, the 1910 conflagration helped transform wildland firefighting into a profession that today battles blazes with war-like intensity.
“The fire happened during the height of industrialization when railroads and construction were booming,” says Alexander. “People realized wood was a natural resource they needed to manage and maintain. Along with the understandable fear for human safety, they thought, ‘We need to stop fires and control these resources so we can continue to harvest wood.’
“So, in 1935, the National Forest Service implemented the informal ‘10 a.m. policy,’ which decreed that every fire will be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day following its initial report,” he says. “They built watch towers, had planes fly in and drop water, and got crews out building fire lines with chainsaws and Pulaskis. It was all new at the time and since then, we’ve become very good at it.”
The message was reinforced by the Smokey Bear campaign, which debuted in 1944 with the slogan, “Care Will Prevent 9 out of 10 Forest Fires.” It was later personalized to, “Remember … Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”
Alexander says the policy essentially went unquestioned until the 1970s, arguing that it “never really became a headline issue until the turn of the twenty-first century when fires started ramping up and communities were once again heavily impacted by smoke and safety concerns.”
He says recent studies show that removing fire from the landscape over the last century has resulted in a 100 percent increase in the number of trees in certain regions. Those trees, however, are skinny, small, and closely crowded. At the same time, early logging practices systematically removed the largest trees which are the ones old enough to have developed fire-resistant features like thick bark.
“Now you have dense forests with very thin bark,” says Alexander. “They can carry a fire both from the ground to the tops of the canopy and from one side of the canopy to the other. You have both vertical and horizontal fuel connectivity.
“Then, you see climate change increasing the likelihood of an extended summer season when moisture is low and fuels are primed to burn. Then, a majority of the fire starts are from humans, whether that’s due to escaped burns, campfires, powerlines, or railway strikes.
“Add that all together and our forests are primed to burn,” he says. “All you need is a match.”
Desautel says the highly coordinated fire suppression approach used by state and federal agencies enables them to catch most fires within the first 24 hours.
“The problem is when we don’t catch a fire during initial attack, it’s usually because we’re in the worst conditions: the hottest weather, the lowest humidity, the highest winds,” he says.
“When we have these kinds of conditions, you have a disproportional amount of very destructive, high severity fire compared to what would’ve been there historically—when tribes burned on the shoulders of fire season, those June and September fires in our region.
“We used to see consumption of fuels in the understory but not necessarily in the overstory. And we would’ve seen a different tree species composition in pre-contact forests—those species adapted to fire like Ponderosa pine and Western larch would’ve survived and done well. And there would be less Doug fir.”
Desautel says a 1958 forest inventory showed the Colville Reservation was once primarily populated with pine trees and fires typically burned through those habitat types about once every fifteen years.
“Now, Doug fir is the most prominent species on the reservation,” he says. “For the last 10 years, we’ve been trying to reverse that trend through our forest management program. It took a century to get here but we’re making progress.”
The Colville Tribe uses both prescribed fire and mechanical fuel reduction treatments to decrease underbrush, debris, small trees, and other combustible fuels in the area.
“We also do a lot of forest stocking and species manipulation to ensure we have fire-resistant species on the landscape,” Desautel says. “We want to create that mosaic in age and species that would’ve existed before.
“We know historically, there would’ve been big trees but in lower densities— primarily species like larch and pine which are drought and disease resistant and very fire tolerant. But we’d also have open patches with huckleberries and other culturally significant species. We’re trying to ensure our reservation landscapes are resilient now and into the future with considerations for a changing climate.
“So, when we have a large fire event, the post-fire conditions will more closely mimic what you would’ve seen historically,” he says. “By comparison, when you see a large fire on federally managed land, a big percentage of that fire is high severity. That won’t necessarily be the case here since we’ve changed our forest management program.”
Their efforts are a race against time, however, as climate change continues to equal or exceed previous predictions and the West lingers in the grip of a once-every-1,200-year megadrought.
Desautel says about eight years ago, it was projected there would be a 250 to 400 percent increase in wildfire burn acres for their region over the next four decades. But the fires are already surpassing those yearly forecasts.
He says the Biden administration’s $50 billion investment in thinning high-risk firesheds will be extremely helpful for tackling the large backlog of treatments needed across the West.
“It’s a huge first step but, according to Washington State Department of Natural Resource’s 20-year forest health strategic plan, we have at least 2.7 million acres of forest land in eastern Washington alone that are in need of restoration treatment. A one-time funding boost catches us up, but we need sustained funding if we want to have the capacity to maintain the landscape as it looked historically.”
The Colville Tribe would prefer to do controlled burning on the reservation throughout the year, but Desautel says they are limited by funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, smoke and air quality regulations, available burn windows, and a landscape complicated by an ever-growing number of homes and other structures.
“Early in my career, a few tribal employees would go out and burn areas at the right times,” he says. “Now, due to legal liabilities, we need to include most of our fire management staff for contingency in case the prescribed fire gets out of control. So, it’s not particularly productive. We haven’t found a way to get regulatory changes made to give us the flexibility to burn more acres.”
Saddled with today’s massive burn deficit, Desautel believes the West will continue seeing uncontrolled wildfires on the landscape for years to come.
Looking at the problem from a national level, Desautel points to the Wilderness Act of 1964 which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.
“People may not understand that, from the Indigenous perspective, tribes were active land managers,” Desautel says. “For example, in the act, they want forest conditions to go back to or be retained in pre-European conditions when it was untrammeled by man. That’s an unrealistic statement made in ignorance or a lack of education about how many tribal people lived here prior to colonization.”
He says Europeans vastly underestimated the population of Native peoples before the West was settled. Research shows that diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles traveled faster than the wagon trains and, in some areas, killed 80–90 percent of Indigenous people.
As a result, European settlers saw fewer Indians left on the landscape and less burning than they would have seen just a few decades prior.
“So, I think there’s a big disconnect between what modern science considers natural ignition—lightning fires—versus how much Native burning actually happened,” says Desautel. “We don’t account for those Native ignitions when we look at forest disturbance regimes.”
He recently took part in a forest management planning session for the Colville National Forest that was said to be modeled on historic fire regimes and fire return intervals.
“I said ‘Well, where are those ignitions coming from?” Desautel says. “Historically, there would’ve been a lot of Natives on the landscape who lit the highest percentage of those fires.
“Since we’re no longer allowed to do that, how are you going to mimic that historic regime? Lightning won’t get us there—there’s simply not enough to burn the acres we need to retain those historic fire intervals.
“No one had an answer for that,” he says, “I’m not sure anyone in the West does.”
Video: How the Colville Tribes combat invasive plants and fire
Tips on keeping animals safe during wildfires
On the web
For Forest Blazes Grown Wilder, an Alternative: The ‘Good Fire’ (Undark, October 2021)
Risk of uncontrollable wildfires will rise and spread globally, United Nations warns (The Washington Post, February 23, 2022)