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Starving a fire

By on June 26, 2021 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
While frost is on the ground, Mary Carlsen burns a pile as the tangle of brush and dead trees are cleared to create less fuel for wildfires.

Determined Lief Carlsen has spent years clearing his land so it won’t be a firetrap

By Lief Carlsen

When we first acquired the 20 acres in Union Valley above Lake Chelan 42 years ago, my father called it a “firetrap” — and rightly so. 

Tangles of dead trees and brush, crispy-dry in summer’s heat, required nothing more than an errant match or sudden lightning strike to become a conflagration. 

But then there were the views, oh the views! Bright blue Lake Chelan 2,000 feet below and the snow-covered Cascade mountains in the distance. I had found my heaven on earth.

I promptly built myself a log house on the land with a commanding view of the lake and mountains and went about building a life complete with a wife and children, two goats and five chickens. 

When the brush is clear, space is created for springtime flowers to grow.

But even as life settled into a satisfying routine, a certain unease hung in the air. There was the matter of that firetrap my father had mentioned years before. 

Around the middle of July each year, as the green grass turned brown and the absence of rain became a daily concern, I would look around at the fallen trees and the bitterbrush that had dropped their leaves and cross my fingers, hoping that we could skate through another summer without a forest fire. 

To be sure, I was not merely a passive worrier. I cut up the fallen trees near the house and trimmed the lower branches of those still living but my efforts seemed pitifully inadequate when I surveyed the scope of the problem. Twenty acres is a lot of land.

The history of our firetrap is a familiar one. The land had been logged 50 years earlier, removing the large pine and fir trees that shaded the land. 

With sudden access to plentiful sunlight, the hillsides experienced a surge of exuberant growth. Thousands of young trees and bushes rushed in to claim their share of nature’s resources. The race was on.

But as with most moments of sudden opportunity, the good times were soon over. Like the gold seekers who flocked to California during its gold rush, there were a few winners but most were losers. Trees that had sprouted shoulder to shoulder became starved for water and sunlight as they grew — most died. They became the nearly impenetrable tangle that surrounded our home.

When the brush is clear, space is created for springtime flowers to grow.

Years passed. Seeking better employment, we moved elsewhere. The house sat vacant. The firetrap grew more combustible. Still, our luck held — no forest fires.

When retirement eventually released us from the bonds of employment, we moved back to our Union Valley home and acre-by-acre Mary and I began the long process of clearing the land.

At first, the dead trees were the most prominent constituent of the monumental clearing task we had embarked upon. They were cut into four-foot lengths, stacked in large piles and, when the weather was favorable, burned. 

But as the trees were removed from the scene, it became clear that a more formidable challenge was the bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata). There was scarcely a spot on the 20 acres where one could not stand and be within an arm’s length of bitterbrush.

How to describe bitterbrush for those not familiar with it? — shaggy barked, prickly branches, dusty-green foliage. It has an unsightly habit of allowing substantial parts of the bush to die and endure as lifeless gray appendages like sun-bleached bones in the desert. It then devotes its resources shamelessly to new growth like an unfaithful husband in pursuit of a younger trophy wife. 

For much of the year, it sheds its leaves and appears to be dead. 

As you may have guessed by now, I don’t like bitterbrush.

Clearing our land has been a multi-year project. 

Mowing the bitterbrush or cutting off the top with a chainsaw proved ineffective. The following year the bush sprouts anew. 

A sort of arms race developed to meet this challenge. Because bitterbrush has a single, long taproot, it is this root that must be dealt with. If the bitterbrush is large (and bitterbrush can grow as large as a camper van), I fashioned a steel extension with a “V” notch at the end that I bolt to the bucket of my Bobcat. I call it the “Plucker” and, as the name implies, it pulls the entire bush from the ground, root and all. 

Smaller bushes are dispatched with the “Decapitator.” Commonly known as a mattock, the Decapitator is a wide, heavy hoe with a sharpened edge. One strong swing with the Decapitator near the base of one of these pesky bushes and, well … you get the picture. 

There is irony in the fact that fire, the potential destroyer of our home, can be used as an impressive ally in the fight against fire. 

Ridding our land of the enormous piles of brush, branches and dead tree trunks would have been nearly impossible had we not burned them. Watching mountainous mounds of debris being reduced to a small pile of ash is truly a wonder to behold. 

And yes, I know that bitterbrush is winter forage for deer and that by removing it from our land, I’m depriving them of a food source. 

My answer to that is that the deer can look elsewhere for their winter forage. Bitterbrush abounds on my neighbors’ land. And if the neighbors should clear their land also? To quote Marie Antoinette in a slightly altered form, “Let the deer eat cake!”

This spring, we burned the last of the brush piles from last fall’s clearing. The entire 20 acres has been given the once over. 

Of course, each year some trees die, branches fall, bitterbrush seeds blow in on the wind. Nature can be so untidy. 

But the most delightful transformation has occurred as a mostly unanticipated result of our efforts. 

During April, May and June a dense carpet of wildflowers has replaced the drab bitterbrush on the forest floor and the looming sense of unease that a forest fire could destroy all that we have built here has been replaced by the knowledge that at least now we have a fighting chance.

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