“Everybody has an interest in preventing wildfire in sagebrush country,” said Corinna Hanson, The Nature Conservancy’s Moses Coulee/Beezley Hills Preserves Land Manager. “There are livelihoods that are built… for generations in sagebrush country. I’m thinking about the cattle rangers and the farmers who have made a life and a home in these areas.”
Hanson manages a bit more than 30,000 acres in eastern Washington. Last year’s Pearl Hill Fire scorched 3,000 acres of preserved land and, shortly after, a second fire took 700 acres of preserve near McCartney Creek.
“I know sage grouse died. I know pygmy rabbits died. On an individual basis, on a small scale, that’s not that big of a deal, but this fire in particular, the Pearl Hill Fire, wiped out such a large swath, hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat where it’s affecting our native wildlife species on a population level,” Hanson said. “That’s where I find it just devastating.”
Not only do the fires leave lasting damage on the land and the wildlife occupying it, but the lingering smoke ravages air quality so it’s unsafe to go outside, she said.
“Even though my focus is more on habitat, it also, of course, impacts anyone who lives and works in these areas,” she said. “People’s farms and ranches burned up. People’s homes were destroyed. Someone lost their life.”
The same fires last Labor Day Weekend burned nearly the entire town of Malden, south of Spokane.
Fire danger doesn’t seem to be slowing anytime soon either, she said. It’s projected to get worse.
With the growth of this threat, organizations, such as the TNC, are creating new strategies, hiring new personnel and launching new programs to face it.
The first aspect of this is restoration, Hanson said
At the scale of these wildfires, the biggest loss is the sagebrush overstory, Hanson said, but it can also damage the understory, which contains bunch grasses and other valuable plants to native wildlife.
If the habitat is in good shape before the fire, it may be able to fully recover on its own, she said, but it takes a very long time.
Habitats in poor condition prior to the fire need conscious restoration efforts afterward, or they may never come back, she said. Many places revert to cheatgrass, which is not valuable to native wildlife and can worsen fire hazards the next year.
Recently, TNC, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and nonprofit conservation organization Pheasants Forever, has identified 300 acres of areas in need of pointed restoration efforts. In several hundred additional acres, it will reestablish sagebrush.
Last fall, TNC spread sagebrush seed across 250 acres on the Moses Coulee Preserve, Hanson said. Along with planting native species and controlling invasive plants, it will continue this effort this year.