Scientists Say Thinning, Prescribed Burns Helped Forest During Schneider Springs Fire in 2021


NACHES — From a lookout point along Bethel Ridge Road, the plateau of Meeks Table stands out against the snowy William O. Douglas Wilderness, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and Cascade Range to the west.

The landscape around the viewpoint is a mosaic of forest, patches cleared by wildfire, exposed basalt and river drainage, as a fork of Rattlesnake Creek cuts through a canyon to the north.

"You can see a lot of red and black trees, and then as you come closer, you can see a very defined wall, essentially, where it's just nothing but green," Naches fire management officer Jason Emhoff said during a visit to the site Wednesday, gesturing to the Meeks Table plateau.

The line where the trees switch from black and red to solid green is the boundary of the Angel Underburn project area, an area of the forest that was treated before the Schneider Springs Fire in 2021.

Scientists reviewing the impact of forest health treatments within the footprint of the Schneider Springs Fire have found that areas treated with both forest thinning and prescribed burns in the decades leading up to the blaze fared better than untreated areas, helping firefighters during the response.

Officials from the state Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service who toured the site Wednesday are using the findings to inform future practices as part of the state's 20-year forest health plan.

The treated areas

Various work on the forest near Bethel Ridge took place in the decades leading up to the Schneider Springs Fire.

The Angel Underburn project area covers about 6,800 acres in the Rattlesnake Creek drainage. Emhoff said logging and thinning was used to clear the area about 15 years ago, with prescribed fire covering about 3,000 acres five to 10 years ago.

Other patches of forest near Bethel Ridge saw thinning or prescribed fire individually.

Emhoff said together the treatments clear excess fuels and duff — the layer of leaves, pine needles and other plant matter packed into the ground — that have built up over the last century as fire was largely kept off the landscape.

"In areas like this when you can truly do both — you're really mimicking the whole effect that fire would have had naturally," he said. "We tried to do that to get rid of (those fuels), and you can see the effect of it today."

The treatments allow the forest to better withstand wildfire and help with fire response.

"One of the nice things is, when we know we have treatments like this, we can redeploy resources to other areas," Emhoff said, which was true at Schneider Springs.

Benefits at Schneider Springs

Lightning started the Schneider Springs Fire on a parched landscape about 18 miles northwest of Naches, and it expanded quickly. It was the largest fire in Washington that year, totaling 107,337 acres.

The fire posed challenges for the state Department of Natural Resources and Type I federal incident management team that responded. Its positioning in a remote area of the national forest with steep terrain made access difficult, and firefighting resources were limited with a large number of fires burning nationally.

Recent forest treatments in the area allowed limited resources to be used strategically.

"This is a small footprint on the big landscape," Emhoff said about the Angel Underground treatment area, "but really when you look at it, what this did was allow us, in a time period where we had a short number of resources nationwide, to redeploy these to go protect those homes down in the Nile Valley, up Chinook Pass, up White Pass."

"Knowing that this (area) wasn't going to be a problem, we were able to go down-canyon to where the homes were and start taking care of those," he continued.

No structures were lost in the fire.


Treated forest across Washington experienced a range of fire severity during the 2021 season. Fires burned at a low severity in many treated areas, especially where treatments were recent and where prescribed fire was used, according to an assessment by DNR forest health scientists, including Derek Churchill and Garrett Meigs.

Churchill and Meigs joined the Wednesday site visit to Bethel Ridge and shared insight into how the Schneider Springs Fire moved through the forest.

Churchill said the green forest below the red and black burned trees near Meeks Table is an example of how fire moves differently through treated areas — or doesn't move through at all.

"(In) this case, the fire actually didn't burn at all, like it hit these areas and just stopped," Churchill said. "In other places, the fire burned through the area but it burned close to the ground and didn't kill very many trees."

Meigs later pulled out a paper copy of the 2021 fire assessment to show the burn severity of forested areas throughout the Schneider Springs footprint.

"These big red sections in higher elevations, these are places where most of the trees were killed," Meigs said. "What's shown in our map as blue, that's relatively low severity."

"More of that occurred at lower elevations and also where there had been more treatments and where there's more accessibility of roads," he continued, referencing the places with low intensity fire.

That makes sense from a fuel and fire standpoint, he said, because the prescribed burning is used to reduce the amount of fuels available.

"So when a wildfire gets there, there's not the surface fuel, like the needles and the small branches, to carry fire through, or what we call ladder fuels, the small trees that can carry fire up into the crown," he said. "Treating the fuels with prescribed fire makes a difference."

'Good fire'

Fire intensity also makes a difference, according to Churchill.

A low intensity fire, with flame lengths burning just a foot or two from the ground, happens when there is less fuel to burn. The fuel might also be wetter, or conditions less windy, he said, and the result is that trees can survive.

Compare that to windy and dry conditions with lots of available fuel, when flame lengths climb to 20 or 30 feet, he said.

"As you can imagine, then, you know, whole trees get consumed," he said. "That's when you get a big crown fire, these big runs, you know, these huge patches of forest where all the trees are dead, or almost all the trees are dead, and in general, that's not a good thing."

Churchill said some patches of entirely clear areas are great: "We want some open areas and meadows. We don't want wall-to-wall trees over these landscapes, we want kind of a mosaic."

Prescribed burns and wildfire can help meet this objective.

"When fire creates some patches, that's a good thing, and when it burns with that low flame length, not only does it not kill trees, but it's also then consuming all those fuels," he said. "It's doing really good work, right, so the next time we have a fire, the next fire is going to burn at a low severity, too."

As researchers learn more about fire behavior, treatment and wildfire outcomes reinforce each other, Churchill said.

"That's kind of what we're trying to do, is try to get fire to do good work in as much of the forest as we can."


The more thinning and prescribed burns that are pieced together across the landscape, the better the forest will fare in a wildfire. That's the key takeaway officials shared Wednesday.

As part of the 20-year forest health plan, DNR has assessed 37 priority landscapes for treatments, and 10 more are queued up, bringing the total to 47 in the next few years, according to DNR Forest Operations District Manager Jason Emsley out of the southeast region.

Emsley said DNR is planning to assess areas near Nile and Ahtanum for future treatments, and some places have already been identified for improving forest conditions and wildfire response evacuation routes.

"The areas where first responders are going to go into, we want to make the conditions there safer for them to actually engage a fire," he said. "Doing these treatments is aimed at helping create anchor points, essentially, where we can start fighting a fire and putting a boundary around it and containing it."

The efforts are still in the planning and identification stage, but one challenge in planning is coordinating access across land owned by different agencies or individuals.

"Connecting those treatments together across ownerships is really important, and it's one of the more complicated aspects of that," Emsley said.

The office has the capacity to do the work, but it's working to get the various pieces in place, he said.

The last stop along Bethel Ridge Road on Wednesday was a spot where some thinning had been done before high-intensity fire burned through. Several trees were scorched to their crowns, but one old pine was still green atop a burned trunk and brown section of dried needles.

"There's a big tree that survived this," Churchill said, pointing to the pine. "Bigger, older trees have thicker bark, and they're taller so they survive fires better, in general. Nature's variable."

He called it an example of forest resilience.