By Mike Groenewold
Three severe wildfires swept across approximately 163,000 acres in Sioux, Dawes and Sheridan Counties from Aug. 28 to Sept. 4. Estimates of damage to private, federal and state lands are not yet available. But wildfire severely impacted Metcalf Wildlife Management Area (WMA) north of Hay Springs and Bighorn WMA east of Crawford. Portions of Ponderosa WMA east of Crawford and Chadron Creek WMA south of Chadron also burned.
At Chadron State Park, approximately 770 acres, of ponderosa pine forest burned. Wildfire or backfires burned with moderate intensity on the ground over 750 forested acres without crown fires. However, heat from the understory fires caused significant damage to many of the forest pines. Only 30 acres burned hot enough to kill most trees. Many trees with green crowns survived the fire, but approximately 60 percent of the trees suffered crown scorch and will die without adequate precipitation. Hopefully, 50 percent of the trees on burned acres will survive, if sufficient moisture arrives in the weeks and months ahead. All park structures except one pit latrine building were saved.
In 2000, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commissioners approved a forest management program that would allow the harvest and sale of timber at Chadron State Park. It was a bold step that began a 10 year process to thin forest trees at densities two and three times greater than foresters recommend for sustainable growth. Approximately 400 acres of the 800 acre park forest were thinned with selective harvests and fuels reduction thinnings from 2001 through 2010. The sale of timber from the park was never about accumulating revenue. Priority one was always to protect the park from devastating wildfire, since the park forest was so overgrown that safe, defensible fire suppression would have been difficult.
Until severe drought this summer, life seemed good for the piney woods of Chadron State Park. Aesthetically, the park looked very good, since nearly all slash piles were burned or chipped and most residual logging slash had decomposed or was grassed over. The blue paint that marked “leave trees” during selective harvests was nearly gone. Regeneration was more than adequate with seedlings well stocked on disturbed soils, and Dave Kinnammon, park superintendent, had created a marvelous network of recreation trails from the logging roads that were developed to manage the park forest.
After observing first -hand the extreme fire conditions while assisting with fire suppression and performing post fire assessment, I believe management greatly reduced the impact of wildfire at Chadron State Park. Despite unprecedented conditions, I observed very little crown fire in the park forest which I attribute to the spacing of trees achieved during our thinning. Although the fire burned hot because fuel was so dry and air temperatures were extreme, fires burned slow enough for safe fire suppression.
Habitat management objectives for forests on WMAs are often different from those on parklands. However, our wildlife biologists also began thinning and ladder fuel reduction projects in 2007, with Commission approval, to lessen the impact of wildfires. Consequently, biologists have recently treated 463 acres at the Metcalf WMA , 166 acres at Chadron Creek Ranch WMA, 259 acres at Boudreaux Creek WMA and 260 acres at Gilbert Baker WMA.
Greg Schenbeck, biologist for Northwest Panhandle WMAs reports after studying recent satellite imagery that, “in most cases, wildfire burned at a lower intensity where thinning was performed during recent fires at Metcalf WMA and Chadron Creek WMA. However, this year’s fire season has been extreme beyond any previous fire season that I have experienced. The extreme fire conditions when coupled with certain topography like chutes and slopes on south facing sites caused fires to burn very hot and overruled any management we did or could have performed.”
Forest and other land management is an ongoing process, so managers of the park and nearby wildlife areas will move forward to ensure our properties are safe for our visitors. Currently, managers are first looking to clean road, trail and fence corridors of hazardous trees, so our lands are safe for use. Roads and trails took a beating over several days of fire fighting so repairs will also be needed. Repair or replacement of fencing will come at considerable cost but will be a priority project. Although markets are very limited for burned timber, another harvest of fire damaged trees at Chadron State Park would reduce fuels for future wildfires, if funding is available. In the short term, we hope gentle rains arrive to encourage the growth of grasses and forbs to limit soil erosion.