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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.

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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. 

That’s when the hard work and planning came into play. The water-control structure and overall wetland restoration project helped save the Losey’s farm from the fire. The water-control structure provided a route for firefighters to access the northeastern boundary of the fire. Helicopters also utilized the restored wetland to refill water buckets, instead of flying several miles to refill at Mason Lake or Hog Lake.

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The fire burned right up to the edge of the wetland. The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Project helped back up water on the restored wetland for the first time in more than 100 years. Photo by Brian Walker / USFWS.

Eventually, a fire line was established immediately downstream of the structure, with the wet stream bed providing a suitable boundary.

“When the Watermelon Hill fire ran through our area, we became very appreciative of wetlands that you and the many other guys at Turnbull helped re-established around our ranch … ,” the Losey family wrote in an email to Partner’s biologist Brian Walker, who is stationed at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. “In the years before the wetlands were re-established, the creek bed was dried by this time of year and would have provided no protection. … Thanks for the wetlands that you reestablished at our place. We’ve always enjoyed them, but (we) became even more grateful during the fire and quite proud to have helped in stopping the fire.”

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The water control structure across Damage Creek was used by fire crews to fight the Watermelon Hill fire. The road proved instrumental in halting the fire. You can see the fire damage in the background. Photo by Brian Walker / USFWS

Many agencies responded to the fire, including Inland Northwest National Wildlife Refuge Complex fire management staff, and more than 300 firefighters were on the ground. The fire was completely contained on July 24 after burning about 11,000 acres.

For Walker, it’s just another example of why it pays to manage your property for wildlife habitat.

“Prior to completing this project, this wetland was completely dry by early July,” Walker said. “It now provides open water habitat for waterfowl, beaver, and other wildlife. The project was never intended to specifically act as wild fire control, but it illustrates how properly managed habitat can serve a wide variety of uses, including fire control.”

Explore the entire Behind the Flames series: 
Part I: How Entiat National Fish Hatchery Took on the MIlls Canyon Fire: http://bit.ly/behindflame1
Part II: Prescribed Fire, Nature’s Medicine (in Spanish): http://bit.ly/behindflame2
Part III: A Fire Term Glossary: http://bit.ly/behindflame3
Part IV: Wildfire in Washington, Losing a Landscape that is for the Birds: http://bit.ly/BehindFlame4
Part V: Fighting Fire with Habitat Restoration: http://bit.ly/behindflame5
Part VI: Fire & Water, A Service Hydologist’s Take on Climate Change and Fire: http://bit.ly/behindflame6

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