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Behind the Flames, Part VI: Fire & Water - A Service Hydrologist’s Take on Our Warming Climate

The latest installment in a series of behind-the-scenes stories on how fire affects people, places, and wildlife.

By Tim Mayer/USFWS Hydrologist 


Photo: Residents evacuating Pateros in Central Washington in mid-July of this year as the Carlton Complex Fire threatens the town. Credit: Garson Shortt Photography

Every summer, forests around the Pacific Northwest ignite in a string of forest fires. This summer has been no exception with record-setting fires burning in central Washington and Central and Eastern Oregon. It’s like an endless series of sequels to a Hollywood disaster movie, where the plot never changes.

Since 2000, the average area burned in wildfires every year has more than doubled from the 1985 to 1999 yearly average. The fire season has grown from an average of five months in the 1970s to seven months today.  Costs associated with fighting these fires have soared, with much of the financial burden falling on American taxpayers.

Why are we seeing these changes? For years, the public and scientific discussion has focused on fire suppression; the theory being that we have done such an excellent job of preventing fires that underbrush, dead wood and other fuels have accumulated, increasing the flammability of our forests. This is true to a certain extent but recently, the role of climate and climate change is also being acknowledged.    

Strong scientific evidence shows that climate change has resulted in hotter, drier conditions in our region. Average annual air temperatures have increased and snowpacks have decreased over the last century (see figure). Low precipitation and high temperatures in summer dry out fuels over a larger than normal area, increasing the number and extent of fires. Earlier snowmelt from warm spring temperatures leads to an earlier, longer fire season with drier soils and vegetation and more opportunities for ignition. High-elevation forests that were previously protected from wildfire by late snowpacks are becoming more vulnerable to fire as well. 


Figure credit: Climate Impacts Group, University of Washington

Climate warming has affected forests and fuels in another way too. Warm winters have allowed bark beetles to survive longer and reproduce more, resulting in record pine beetle outbreaks. From 2000 to 2013, bark beetles killed 47.6 million acres of forests in the western U.S., an area the size of Nebraska. I personally have observed steadily expanding patches of dead pine trees on the hillsides surrounding my home town of Hood River, OR. All these dead trees potentially make more fuel wood available for wildfires. It’s quite frightening to think about.

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"Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?" - Frida Kahlo

Spread your wings during Hispanic Access Foundation's Latino Action Conservation Week! Nature doesn’t get lost in translation: Don’t forget to check out our new Tumblr space for conservation in any language. 
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"Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?" - Frida Kahlo

Spread your wings during Hispanic Access Foundation's Latino Action Conservation Week! Nature doesn’t get lost in translation: Don’t forget to check out our new Tumblr space for conservation in any language

Behind the Flames, Part V: Partners’ habitat project helps fight Watermelon Hill fire

This part of a series of behind-the-scenes stories on how fire affects people, places, and wildlife.

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program started work on a wetland restoration project on Dave and Meg Losey property near Cheney, Washington, little did they know it would be instrumental in stopping a raging wildfire.

The Partners project was straight-forward enough – remove a dilapidated bridge and replace it with a water control structure to help restore a partially drained wetland.  In 2012, the bridge over Damage Creek was removed and replaced with a water-control structure that allowed water to flow over the structure and for vehicles to travel the same route.


Before and after photos of the wetland restoration project completed by the Partners for Fish and Wildlife program. Photos by Brian Walker / USFWS 

The project was completed in fall 2013 with placement of backfill for the structure and revegetation efforts along several areas of the restored wetland. In spring 2014, the restored wetland held water for the first time in more than 100 years, covering nearly 200 acres with water.

Then came the fire. On July 19, the Watermelon Hill fire that started near Fish Trap Lake was spreading east toward the project location. 

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Multilingual Mondays! Telling Conservation Stories in Many Languages


Welcome to our first article in Spanish. In honor of our multilingual fans across the globe and in coordination with Latino Conservation Action Week (July 25 - Aug 1), we are launching a new online space featuring conservation stories in many languages.Nature doesn’t get lost in translation so keep coming back here for more information in Spanish and other languages! 

Bienvenidos a la primera instalación en español. En honor de nuestros aficionados multilingües y en coordinación con la semana de latinos y acciones medioambientalistas (25 de junio hasta el 2 de agosto), estamos lanzando esta iniciativa en una nueva página presentando historias de conservación en muchos idiomas diferentes. La naturaleza nos habla a todos entonces siga regresando para más información y noticias sobre el medioambiente – ¡en español y otros idiomas!

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Behind the Flames, Part IV: Wildfire in Washington, Losing a landscape that is for the birds

By: Heather McPherron, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, USFWS


Photo: Service biologist and blog author Heather McPherron checking up on the location of a radio-collared sage-grouse that had been using the area 2 hours prior to the ignition of the human-caused wildfire.

Photo Credit: Heather McPherron, Fish and Wildlife Biologist, USFWS

The current number of wildfires throughout the west is a shocking reminder of just how big the threat of wildfire is to sage-grouse in Washington. I have been with the Service a little over one year now in Washington State and have been involved with managing sage-grouse throughout most of their range west of the Rocky Mountains. But, I have to say that my current post in Washington is by far the most challenging. The threats that sage-grouse face throughout most of their range are magnified in our state due to Washington’s small number of birds and how isolated each sage-grouse population is from the others.


Photo: Wildfire in sage-grouse habitat in Washington.

Photo Credit: Nick Stanton, BLM

In my opinion, sage-grouse are just about one of the most amazing birds. In the spring, the males fan out their tails, similar to a peacock, and do a little song and dance to attract a mate. Plus, their life is centered around sagebrush which is essential habitat for 350 species. Sage-grouse require large tracts of land vegetated by sagebrush, dry shrubs, and grasses, called shrub steppe.  Sage-grouse occupy only a tiny portion of their former range in Washington State where the shrub steppe is no longer abundant, much of it fragmented by human land use activities that popped up as people settled the State. Currently, they are found in only four isolated areas in the State, and only a small portion of the remaining population of these rare birds, which were originally reported to be “in great abundance” by Lewis and Clark, are found in Washington.

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If you build it, they will come…waterfowl, that is.

This was one of the opening statements from Mark Nebeker, Project Manager from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), during the pre-field trip briefing at the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area. Last month, conservation partners met for a collaborative site visit to the habitat restoration projects being undertaken on the Columbia River island, near Portland, Oregon. image

For several decades, Federal, State and Tribal partners have recognized the value of maintaining and restoring healthy habitats to attract wildlife for the benefit of the American people.  The establishment of the North Lakes Cooperative Agreement successfully pulled together crucial partners needed to create and maintain these essential wetlands.  The Cooperative is also a key partner in maintaining the cultural resources of the Island. Overseen by ODFW, these collaborative efforts are a top priority for the agency responsible for managing the nearly 12,000 acres of waterfowl habitat on the island that often coincide with the remnants of past human settlements. 

Over the past 200 years, more than 50 percent of the wetlands in America have been lost and many of the remaining wetlands are degraded. These losses and alterations compromise the important benefits provided by wetlands including protecting water quality, providing habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, and reducing flood damage.  Preserving these wetland resources is critical to our nation’s environmental health and can’t be completed without the cooperation from conservation partners. image

This island also has important cultural values.  Humans have been hunting, fishing, and gathering on Sauvie Island for millennia.  It is one of the major stopping points for waterfowl on the Pacific flyway and home to scores of wildlife species.  The Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Grand Ronde Indian Community have a vested interest in the land and the restoration work being undertaken.  Long before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans were among the few communities that produced wealth beyond that needed for subsistence.  They built up a strong trading system where salmon was the currency.  The people understood that their livelihood depended on the land along the rivers where they had fished for generations, the focus of their cultural and spiritual life.

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Happy Batman Day! There may only be one “caped crusader”, but did you know there are about 1300 different kinds of bats worldwide? They may not be fighting crime, but they sure are busy making the world a better place by pollinating our crops and taking care of pesky insects.  
Bats live almost everywhere on Earth, except for the most extreme desert and polar regions. So chances are, there are bats where you live. Let’s meet a few of these superheroes of the nocturnal animal world in the Pacific Region.
Photo 1 - Marianas fruit bat: lives in Guam’s limestone forests and can have a wingspan of up to 3.5 feet! These gentle giants are important for pollinating and dispersing seeds of popular tropical fruits like coconut, papaya, and figs. Photo credit: Julia Boland/USFWS
Photo 2 - Townsend’s big-eared bat: Aptly named, their ears are over an inch long. That may seem small to you, but that’s a quarter of their entire body length! Can you imagine having ears almost a foot and a half long? Photo credit: Ann Froschauer/USFWS
Photo 3 - Pallid bats: Awesome listeners that use those big ears to detect the footsteps of their prey on the ground. Swooping in silently from above, these larger bats often eat scorpions and centipedes,crickets, grasshoppers and beetles.Photo credit: Ann Froschauer/USFWS
Photo 4: Spotted bats: Have the largest ears of any North American species, and those pearly pink ears and black and white spotted fur give it a very distinctive look. This bat also has one of the only echolocation calls that humans can hear. Photo credit: Paul Cryan
Photo 5: Hawaiian hoary bats: are the only land mammal native to the Hawaiian islands. The  ‘ope‘ape‘ as it’s called in Hawaii arrived on the islands some 10,000 years ago. That was quite a migration from North America, over 2,400 miles across the ocean! Photo credit: Frank Bonaccorso
Batty for bats? Check out these great resources: 
Bat Conservation International (bats worldwide)
Western Bat Working Group (bats in western North America)

Behind the Flames, Part III: A Fire Term Glossary


Watermelon Hill: On July 19th, Inland Northwest National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex fire management staff responded to the Watermelon Hill fire southwest of Turnbulll NWR, near Cheney, WA. Fire staff assisted with initial attack operations on the incident which grew to approximately 11,000 acres. Photo credit: Joseph Aiello /USFWS

Hi there! My name is Molly Cox. I work for the USFWS Pacific Region Fire Management Program. When I first came on board a few years ago, I learned pretty fast that Fire folks speak a different language. They’re so accustomed to speaking in ‘fire short-hand’ while working on wildfires, they often forget that others don’t know what they’re talking about. Here are some definitions of fire terms used frequently by firefighters but commonly misunderstood by the public:

Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC) - The physical location of an interagency, regional operation center for the effective coordination, mobilization and demobilization of emergency management resources.

Most of our Pacific Regional Refuges and Fish Hatcheries are located within the Northwest Area Coordination Center (NWCC) which includes the states of Oregon and Washington. Visit their website ( to view a map of all current wildfires burning in the GACC.

Hotshot Crew (also known as Type 1 Crews) - Intensively trained 20-person fire crew used primarily in hand line construction and firing operations on wildland fire incidents.

Fire Management Officer (FMO) - within our region, we have nine fire management zones or districts, each with their own fire management officer or FMO (check out our Fire Management Zones map). The FMO is responsible for managing the overall fire program for his or her zone and provides support to the National Wildlife Refuges and Fish Hatcheries located there.

Fuelbreak- A natural or manmade change in fuel characteristics which affects fire behavior so that fires burning into them can be more readily controlled. Homeowners can better protect their homes from wildfire by mowing the grass around their properties, thereby lessening the fuels, or burnable vegetation, which limits fire growth.


Firefighters are shown here lighting the prescribed burn from a road. The road is used as a ‘fire break,’ preventing the fire from spreading out of the planned prescribed burn boundary. Photo credit: Ken Meinhart, USFWS

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Detrás del Fuego, Parte II: La mejor receta médica para los refugios nacionales de vida silvestre


Imagen de USFWS

Increíble de creer pero algunas veces, el fuego es la mejor medicina para el ecosistema.

En el refugio llamado Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex que está situado en el valle Willamette en el estado de Oregón se ha usado incendios para mantener saludables los ecosistemas del refugio.

En el pasado, el valle era una mezcla de hábitats silvestres.  Los humedales del valle eran extensivos con corrientes serpentinas y pantanos inundados por temporadas.  Los pastizales y las praderas húmedas eran mantenidos por los incendios forestales.  Hoy en día, pequeño fuegos son ‘prescritos’ por biólogos para el beneficio de diferentes hábitats importantes para la vida silvestre.


Imagen de USFWS

Por ejemplo en el refugio, Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, los incendios prescriptos fueron usados en los campos como preparación para plantar hierbas y granos para las aves migratorias como los gansos canadienses.  Esta especié de ganso o branta invernan exclusivamente en el valle Willamette.  La pérdida de hábitat, la depredación y  la cacería han contribuido a la disminución de la población de estas aves pero el refugio les provee un lugar seguro para que ellos invernen.  El refugio también provee un lugar seguro para miles de gansos cascareadores, que son una versión más pequeña de los gansos canadienses.

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How do you restore urban stream habitat? Keep on ‘Tryon’!

Tryon Creek is one of the largest and most protected urban watersheds in Oregon. Tryon is located in Southwest Portland and we are teaming up with partners to restore habitat in the creek’s confluence for threatened salmon and steelhead populations. 


The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is working with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services to evaluate the success of aquatic habitat improvements in Tryon Creek. In 2010, the City of Portland completed a 900-foot off-channel aquatic habitat enhancement along the Willamette River. Habitat improvements included floodplain connectivity, removal of invasive species, and installation of root wads and boulders. 
Photo credit: City of Portland
In 2012, USFWS began an intensive monitoring program to assess community, relative abundance, and temporal use by fish in the improved area. Sampling occurred monthly throughout the year and weekly in the spring, sampling will continue in July 2014 at the same frequency. Backpack electrofishing and seining is used to sample from the confluence to the Oregon State Highway 43 culvert.  

Photo credit: City of Portland

All captured fish are identified, checked for external markings, measured, and tagged with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag. Genetic samples collected from salmonids are transferred to the City of Portland. To determine temporal fish use of the confluence habitat, two PIT tag antennas are installed at the mouth of Tryon Creek. All PIT tagged fish moving over or through these antennas have the opportunity to be detected and identified before entering or exiting the Willamette River.
Photo: A resident trout from Tryon Creek. Credit: City of Portland
Resident fish such as adult and juvenile cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and hybrids of the two were identified in the confluence habitat along with outmigrating juvenile steelhead, Chinook, and coho salmon.  Native fish were more abundant than nonnative fish and coho juveniles were the most abundant species observed. Coho and Chinook were detected emigrating after an average 37-44 days suggesting the habitat serves as a refuge for outmigrating juvenile salmon from elsewhere in the Willamette River basin. PIT tagged Chinook and coho salmon (originating from upstream locations in the upper Willamette River basin and Eagle Creek) utilized the Tryon Creek confluence as part of their migration.

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