OKANOGAN, Wash. — Rain and snow dampened the 371,960-acre Tunk Block and North Star wildfires northeast of Okanogan over the Labor Day weekend.
Ranchers say they talked fire managers, led by the U.S. Forest Service, out of burning 22,000 acres of grazing allotments between the two fires before the rain and snow fell. Ranchers also voiced their concerns about government forest management to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who visited the fires on Labor Day.
Large portions of the fires are in mop up and patrol mode, fire lines continue to be built and burnouts to secure uncontained areas are expected by the weekend, said Shannon O’Brien, a Forest Service fire spokeswoman.
On Sept. 4, ranchers were alarmed by plans for a large burnout to protect several hundred residents in the Aeneas Valley north of the fires.
“They say 22,000 acres is an overstatement and that it was a contingency plan, but my (USFS) rangecon told me about it and to start moving cows and it seemed more likely to happen than not,” said Todd Vejraska, one of three ranchers directly impacted.
“It was the last piece of our allotments that hadn’t burned yet,” he said.
Much of the Vejraskas’ own 4,500 acres of grazing land burned in the Tunk Block fire along with about one-third of their agency grazing allotments. Their permits total about 100,000 acres with the Colville Confederated Tribes and 28,000 with the Forest Service.
The Vejraskas run 600 to 700 pair of cattle and have not found any dead. Many, they believe, are in meadows in the unburned stretch between the fires.
Vejraska called state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and Okanogan County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy, who spoke with fire managers. Collectively, Kennedy, Kretz and ranchers talked fire managers out of the backburn, Vejraska said.
“They said it was always a contingency plan, but it seemed likely to happen,” he said.
O’Brien said the area in question was about 3,600 acres and that it wasn’t close to being backburned but that ranchers were being notified in case it was.
About 170 firefighters built seven or eight miles of fire line on the northeast edge of the Tunk Block fire, she said. Backburning may still be needed to protect Aeneas Valley and will be done to protect the town of Republic from the North Star fire, she said.
Moisture dampened fires but was not enough to finish them off, Vejraska said.
Jon Wyss, government affairs director of Gebbers Farms and Gamble Land & Timber in Brewster, issued a public statement following the meeting with Jewell saying locals emphasized forest management could reduce fuel loads and wildfire intensity. Massive fires are challenging the ability of riparian areas to hold water for fish, he said.
Proactive forest management is “squashed” by threats, lawsuits and appeals by certain groups, Wyss said.
Agencies and their foresters know how to manage, but the environmental community won’t let them do it, Vejraska said.
“A happy medium of allowing some activity to thin and manage riparian buffer zones in a responsible manner has to start in conjunction with regular timber sales,” Wyss said. “This string of wildfire, destructive events could and should be the catalyst to find the proper balance again in our Western forests.”