The Oden Road Fire

A Learning Opportunity for an Okanogan Community

On August 21, 2009, lightning struck Fox Mountain four miles west of Okanogan, Washington.  The ensuing Oden Road Fire severely burned 10,000 acres of forest and farmland along U.S. Highway 20, which was closed for almost a week as smoke billowed through the valley.  Roger Rosenblatt, SFR alumnus and Professor in the UW’s Department of Family Medicine, and his wife Fernne knew this fire well.  Their forest property could have been engulfed by the fire had the wind not changed direction; during the fire they were evacuated for two, scary days and were forcefully reminded that fire is part of their ecosystem.

Rosenblatt, who serves as the faculty advisor for the UW’s Rural/Underserved Opportunities Program, came to the UW as an intern in 1971 and joined the faculty in 1977. He was the first resident to do a rotation at the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) community clinic in Omak, located near the Colville Indian Reservation in north central Washington. He bought forestland 25 minutes outside of Omak and became interested in forestry in 1993 when an epidemic of bark beetles started killing trees in Okanogan County. Using his UW faculty-staff tuition exemption he graduated with an MFR degree in 2003 after researching how healthy forest systems can help mitigate and reverse the impacts of ecological degradation on the health of all terrestrial species, including humans.

A month after the fire, the Rosenblatt’s neighbor, Lee Whittaker, whose property was hard hit, invited them to walk his land and help assess strategies for post-fire management.  Says Fernne, “We had walked Lee’s property before and were shocked by the blackened trees, burned-out root systems, and the soil’s gray, death-like color. I was stunned at first, but as we walked and talked about expected regeneration, I turned to Lee and asked, ‘How would you feel about using your property as a laboratory for high school and community college students?’  Without hesitation he answered, ‘That would be great, can you make it happen?’” 

The Rosenblatts are active members of the Okanogan Valley Land Council (OVLC), a land trust working to protect the Okanogan’s open spaces and working lands. Fernne, a founding member, serves as board secretary and chairs the Council’s Education and Outreach Committee. “Getting folks on the land to enjoy and learn is an important OVLC goal,” say the Rosenblatts, who annually sponsor a field day on their property for seventh grade Omak Middle School students. They both felt the Oden Road Fire was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about forest ecology.   A team of educators from three institutions, natural resource professionals, and OVLC staff and volunteers worked to develop a project that combined study and fieldwork, brought Okanogan high school and Wenatchee Valley College-Omak students to the Whittaker property to study the fire’s impact, and gathered the community together in an opportunity for learning.

The Rosenblatts asked SFR’s Professor Emeritus Jim Agee to be part of this collaborative effort.  At SFR, Agee has chaired or advised over 50 graduate students, including many professional fire ecologists in the Pacific Northwest.  He has been a fire consultant to conservation groups, the forest industry, and many state and federal agencies; his 1993 book, Fire Ecology of Pacific Northwest Forests, remains the most widely cited reference in the discipline.  His research has included studies of Washington eastside forests and the increased fire threats they face in the wake of bark beetle infestations and climate change impacts.  On May 18, 2010, Agee spoke at the Okanogan Grange Hall on “Fire in our Future: Sustaining wildlands and communities” to a crowd of over a hundred. Co-sponsored by the OVLC, the Colville Confederated Tribes, and the Okanogan Conservation District, the event drew an audience of landowners, students, and representatives from Okanogan fire districts and natural resource agencies.  In his talk Agee presented the historical context of forest fires in eastside forests, before and after fire suppression became a  management tool, and about the need to reintroduce fire as a tool to restore the health of ponderosa pine forests. Says Agee, “If we suppress the natural process of low intensity fire, the result will be high intensity fires” 

Agee also participated in an innovative field study project involving students from Okanogan High School and Wenatchee Valley College. After months of study and  two conference video classes with Agee, 25 students in Kathleen Ferguson’s Okanogan High School advanced biology class and two students from Kathleen Johnson’s Wenatchee Valley College class,  established plots and measured  vegetation, aquatic life, wildlife, and soil health to gather the first year data on a 10-year study of the Whittaker property.  The project fieldwork, conducted in mid-May 2010, also involved a team of eight local natural resource professionals from agencies including the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Colville Confederated Tribes, and the Okanogan Conservation District. The first year of the project culminated in a public presentation by the students at Omak City Hall on June 9, 2010. The students gave a formal power point presentation that included discussion of the variety of Pacific Northwest forest ecosystems, fire impacts on these ecosystems, and analysis of the field data collected.  They also spoke about how changing forest management practices can impact the potential for high intensity fires. 

The “take home” lesson from fires like the Oden Road Fire, says Agee, “is that the naturally recurring fires that occurred every 5 to 35 years before the advent of fire suppression in the early 1900s helped these ponderosa pine forests remain healthy and, ironically, safer from fire.  Fire would burn dense clumps of young trees but leave larger trees with thick, fire resistant bark relatively unscathed. The resultant forests had widely-spaced trees which were better able to compete for the relatively scarce precipitation and were better able to fend off insect attacks.  Now, before these lower intensity fires can be reintroduced, existing overly dense stands need to be thinned and the resultant slash removed so that the remaining fuels can be burned without destroying the larger trees.”  Add the Rosenblatts, “When researchers and the community learn these lessons together, the OVLC mission of preserving family land for future generations can better be accomplished.”

Professor Jim Agee instructs students in setting up plots and quadrants for tree and vegetation data collection.

Oden Road fire helicopter water drop. Photo: WA Department of Natural Resources.