Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reducing Fire Danger along the Beach

  June is Fire Prevention Month in America. Wildfires are a fact of life for many western landscapes.  During summer there is increased fire risk as forests and grasslands dry out.  This year it is particularly bad because of drought across much of the West. Only western Washington is not at elevated drought watch right now in late May. The rest of the West has moderate to severe drought conditions. 

The problem:  Dense stands of shore pine,  Pinus contorta ssp. contorta, in grasslands. Fires can easily jump from grasslands to trees under these conditions. Limbs grow to the ground, and trees are close-spaced. Photo by Kathleen Sayce

As western coastal communities established, more than a century ago, a common land management change was to suppress both wildfires and human-caused fires. This is critical for property protection. But it’s bad for plant communities that evolved with fire, including some conifer forests, shrub communities like chaparral, and grasslands. Now, for more than a century, fuels have built up in many natural landscapes instead of regularly burning out in wildfires. 

Looking east from the beach into the dunes, see some property owners take out most of the trees. Others leave dense stands. Photo by Kathleen Sayce
Ocean front property owners respond in several ways. One is to take out all the trees. Another is to leave all of them. But there is an effective middle ground:  Thin the stands, limb the trees left, and reduce the fuel load.  

The process is straightforward:   

Take out all the small trees. Cut those trees off at ground level; this disturbs the soil less than digging or pulling. Remove trees near buildings, so that tree canopies don’t overhang roofs. 
Still small enough to mow down with a brush cutter, these young pines will form a dense stand in less than five years.  Photo by Kathleen Sayce

Leave a few healthy large trees, spaced widely so that their canopies (each tree’s crown of branches and needles) do not touch. Twenty to thirty feet apart is good. 

On the large trees you leave standing, cut tree limbs up to eight to ten feet off the ground, so fires on the ground cannot easily go up into the canopy.  Cut at the collar on the branch so the wound heals quickly; don’t leave a ragged stub. This reduces entry of diseases into the limbed tree.  If you don’t know where the tree limb collar is, contact local master gardeners or arborists about pruning, they can show you how to properly limb conifers and hardwoods. 

This pine tree is out in the open, but its limbs still grow too near the ground. Photo by Kathleen Sayce
Western hemlock trees will die within ten years if limbed, from a fungal disease. It’s better to simply remove the hemlocks or leave them alone.  Other trees will survive removal of lower branches.

This pine tree has been limbed to about 6 feet, a good first step in making the tree fire-resistant. Note the tree behind it has also been limbed.
Photo by Kathleen Sayce
Chip all woody debris, and spread it out in a thin layer on the ground, or remove it from the site.  Don’t leave chips or limbs in piles; piles burn hot in a wildfire, and help the fire strengthen and spread.  Remove all large woody branches and logs for firewood or other uses.  Do not leave these  materials on the ground to provide fuel for a wildfire.  

Mow the grass each year in July, to reduce thatch and cut down any new seedling trees. If you have dense stands of salal and huckleberry, mow them down too, every 2-3 years. Also remove gorse and scotch broom shrubs, both of which burn hot and fast.  A July mowing, just as the annual summer drought gets going, removes fuel for the season. Mow a swathe around buildings. A twenty-feet-wide band is good, fifty feet is better.

When done, the stand is open, trees are widely spaced, and the burnable wood on the ground is shredded into small pieces, or gone. If a fire gets into this stand, the grass will burn quickly and lightly, and the trees will survive.  This is the opposite of good practices to enhance forest habitat, by the way; in the latter, leaving wood and chips helps promote soil fungi and build healthy soils. Fuel reduction for fire resistance is probably the only situation where good stand management includes removing woody debris from the forest. 

It's easy to see from the air how close the coastal towns are to the beach, and how serious the fire hazard from the shore pine stands is. The dark patches between the town and beach are dense shore pine stands. This photo looks west from over Hwy 101 to Seaview and south Long Beach, and the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Kathleen Sayce
I’ve written before about historic dune prairies. These grasslands were naturally patchy and low in fuel, a very different situation from today’s dense meadows of American beachgrass.  With fire suppression, lack of thinning or limbing, growth of dense thickets of gorse and Scots broom, dense beachgrasses, and now buildings all along the beaches, coastal communities have several strikes against them going into dry summers. It’s good that we’ve had damp to wet Fourth of July holidays lately!  

We can’t always count on the weather to provide moisture around major summer holidays.  We can count on our own actions to keep our community safe.  Plan ahead, and reduce your fire danger with thinning, limbing and mowing. Help our community be fire-safe each summer.  Shake down kids for matches and firecrackers if they play in the dunes.  Check with the fire departments before staring yard or debris fires. Be smart about fire. Our fire crews and community all thank you. 

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