With summer approaching, our foothills get hot and dry, and sometime wildfires ignite. Come find out how our local shrub-steppe habitat not only survives, but thrives, and how people fit into the picture. Plan to spend one hour of your Wednesday evenings meeting both native plants and the local people working to increase our community’s fire resiliency. Stop by and enjoy the view from the covered shelter at the new Saddle Rock trailhead.

This May, Chelan-Douglas Land Trust (CDLT) is hosting a series of free outdoor talks in collaboration with Chelan County Fire District 1, the City of Wenatchee, Cascadia Conservation District, and Chelan County Master Gardeners. Susan Ballinger, CDLT Conservation Fellow, will begin each session with an introduction to shrub-steppe plant communities followed by a talk by the featured local partner. The public is invited to attend any or all to learn more about shrub-steppe ecosystems and recommended steps to take that will reduce the risk of future damage by wildfire in our local WUI.

Schedule for Living with Wildfire:  Plants and People

May 16, 6-7pm, Saddle Rock Trailhead. Presenter Jon Riley, Chelan Fire District 1 Community Wildfire Liaison, will talk about Washington Fire Adapted Communities, that work to integrate education, planning, and support, before, during, and after wildfire. Jon will give examples of on-going work with neighbors in the Wenatchee Foothills.

May 23, 6-7pm at the Saddle Rock Trailhead. Presenter Patrick Haggerty, Cascadia Project Coordinator, will describe how Cascadia’s helps private landowners meet personal goals and also benefit native plants and animals.  Patrick will share examples of his work with a variety of local people to develop plans to better steward their lands and increase fire resiliency.

May 30, 6-7pm, Jacobson Preserve Trailhead. Presenters, Al Murphy, Chelan Co. Master Gardener and CDLT Stewardship staff will present a demonstration shrub-steppe landscaping model for homeowners using various techniques to reduce fuels and shorten the time it takes for native plants to regrow after fire.

Background:

April paints brilliant colors on our North Central Washington’s foothills with vivid wildflowers, shrubs massed with blossoms, and an emerald green carpet of new blades of grass.  Called the shrub-steppe, this habitat is characterized by scattered shrubs- mostly big sagebrush- that form a canopy above the ground covered with long-lived perennial bunchgrasses and wildflowers.  Collectively, these plants are adapted to conserve water, minimize evaporative water loss, and survive in a place that experiences periodic wildfire.  Hundreds of birds, mammals, and insects depend upon sagebrush-dominated lands for food, nesting, and cover.

Starting in the 1850s, settlers arrived with cattle and sheep, and inadvertently introduced non-native plants like cheatgrass that quickly invaded as unwelcome weeds.  Today, all across the interior Western U.S., the spread of cheatgrass has reduced the quality of shrub-steppe habitats.  Annual cheatgrass seeds sprout in early winter, quickly grow, set seeds, and die by early summer, resulting in a continuous layer of fine dry fuels that allow wildfires to sweep far and wide.  This opens up ground for more cheatgrass and other weeds to invade, out-competing the native plants, and provides more fuel to feed the next wildfire.  Many native shrubs, flowers, and grasses re-sprout after fire, but big sagebrush does not, so replacement depends upon the wind, blowing in seeds from nearby shrubs.  Lands burned by large fires rarely have big sagebrush return, negatively impacting wildlife.

Cheatgrass-fueled wildfires are increasingly threatening our homes and structures in North Central Washington’s shrub-steppe lands.  In the Wenatchee Valley, we are fortunate to have many organizations and agencies working together to increase our community’s resiliency to future wildland fires in both the forest and the shrub-steppe.  The area where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation is termed the wildland-urban interface (WUI).  The WUI is the zone where people can implement specific strategies to reduce the type and amount of fuels, thus reducing the rate of spread and intensity of a future wildfire.

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