Preventing, not fighting fires, is primary job for Turnbull crews
Fire management changed after 1988 Yellowstone fires
(Editor's Note: This is the second of a two-part series on fire fighting crews at Turnbull Wildlife Refuge.)
By PAUL DELANEY
n event nearly a quarter century ago changed the way agencies entrusted to watch over America's wide open spaces manage their respective lands.
The Yellowstone fires of 1988 were the largest in that national park's recorded history as 793,880 acres, or 36 percent of the park, was affected by the wildfires.
A cross-country flight today that passes over the park will leave one wide-eyed in amazement at just how big the fires really were and how much land was altered for the lifetimes of many.
But out of this disaster came what agencies such as the National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service see as a way to hopefully better protect their respective wild lands in the future.
That of course includes the Turnbull Wildlife Refuge just south of Cheney.
“What can we do to improve our response in the face of catastrophic fires such as Yellowstone?” was the message that came out of post-Yellowstone meetings held at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Turnbull's assistant fire management officer, Doug Frederick, said.
And so were born the fire crews at Turnbull. But those professionals on duty are more than the people who put out fires. Most of their day-to-day work in fact tackles preventing fires before they start.
The fire management of a wildlife refuge is different from that of a national forest where the focus has changed from protection of timber stands to fire being a natural process necessary for new growth, Frederick explained.
“It's all based on your unit and [its] conditions,” Frederick said. “Our plan is going to look different than their (national forest) plan.” Habitat restoration is one of the primary goals of the founding documents of a wildlife refuge.
And fire was chosen as a tool to accomplish that.
Starting about the turn of the 20th century, about the time of the historic 1910 fires, organized suppression was the rule. “A lot of the fires were stomped out immediately,” Frederick said.
But there were no fires as a component of Turnbull stands, which caused a fuels problem. “We'd have upwards of a thousand stems per acre,” Frederick said. Normal acreage had 400-600 trees per acre.
The area should have a more open, Turnbull manager Dan Matiatos said. Historical research provided by early explorers' journals and through biological records, offer the proof of what used to be and goals current refuge managers wish to strive to meet.
“You can look at the density of those stumps across the landscape, it gives you an idea, OK this is what it must have looked like before the area was harvested,” Matiatos said.
Turnbull, which had its birth from donated land, was born in 1937 via executive order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And despite it being protected land, prior to the introduction of on-site fire crews, logging continued through about 1970, Frederick said. And sometimes logging is still conducted through a special permit, but it is much more limited.
“It all gets us to that desired position out there where we're going to have a very well fire-insulated stand because mature pine is not affected by fire,” Frederick said. “It's a very tolerant specie.”
Mature Ponderosa has a very thick insulating bark, Frederick explained. “You can get four-inches (of bark) on those big trees; it will scorch the inside but it won't kill the cambium,” the part of a tree that helps heal scars and wounds.
Young trees, however, especially the skinny stems known as dog hair stands, are subject to violent, “big flame fire,” Frederick said. And those are the ones the Turnbull crews seek to control and eliminate.
“Through the process of thinning and prescribed fire we're getting rid of the fuels that could lead to a catastrophic wildfire,” Frederick said.
It takes a drive deep into the refuge to see what the ultimate Turnbull would look like. Justin Hughes, an engine module leader who was out in the field recently overseeing thinning crews, indicated crews have completed a significant amount of thinning within the 16,000 acres that make up Turnbull.
“What this area looked like historically from a biological, ecological standpoint perspective was more of a savannah situation,” Matiatos explained. “Large Ponderosa pine trees, maybe groups of Ponderosa pines with big gaps and openings in between them.”
Through various means those expendable trees are cut, piled and burned in the winter, Matiatos said.
Turnbull crews are not just people off the street answering ads for tough and dirty work.
Turnbull manager Matiatos started with the service nearly 25 years ago. He has been here three years, arriving from Indiana, and before that Colorado. Matiatos carries a noticeable accent he said comes from growing up in Northeast North Dakota, “near the Canadian border,” he said.
Frederick began his firefighting career in the Wenatchee National Forest in 1979. He spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps before returning to work for the USFS at Mount Baker/Snoqualmie and the Department of Defense at Ft. Lewis prior to landing at Turnbull in 1994.
Matiatos and Frederick said the process to staff the refuge with a crew is an extensive one. Upwards of 350 people will apply for the 17 positions that work the area's DFW properties at Turnbull, Little Pend O'Reille and Kootenai near Bonners Ferry, Idaho.
“We try to have a varied mix,” Frederick said. “We try to have a couple of students and a couple that aren't students.” Currently one crewmember is going to the University of Idaho, another to Washington State and one just finished with time at Spokane Community College.
While all training begins with books and classroom work, “Fire is one of those things that takes hands-on experience,” Matiatos said. Workers go out on the fire, be it of the wild persuasion or prescribed burn, and they are evaluated by trainers on how they took what was learned inside and transferred it outside.
Part of the training saw Hughes running a refresher course on falling trees for fire crewmembers Adam Zakrzewski, Matt Tellessen and Anna Lahde. If the name Zakrzewski sounds familiar, he is a Cheney High School graduate and former soccer standout.
While fires are relatively rare at Turnbull – there are just two to three blazes every five years – the majority have a human element associated with them, Hughes said. Passing trains on rails at the edge of Turnbull occasionally toss sparks that ignite a fire.
Since the abandoning of the roadbed of the former Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad and its rebirth as a trail, fire is even more rare on the refuge.
And that allows crews to concentrate on doing their No. 1 job, preventing fires in the first place.
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.