Choices We Make before the Fire by Janine Donoho

Harbinger from Canada

Harbinger from Canada

As the western part of the United States enters into desiccated autumn, we’re told that the official fire season has begun. In fact, fire season now begins nearly as soon as our shrunken snowpack melts. Once the native and invasive species of plants dries, we’re vulnerable to lightning strikes. Yet lightning causes only 10-20% of our wildfires. The other 80-90%? Human caused.

Slide Mountain near Washoe Valley

Slide Mountain near Washoe Valley

In the high Sierra Nevada Mountain range, where I spent my formative years, snowpack has declined for decades—more precipitously as we blow past the latest tipping points. That means wildfires in winter and early spring—the new normal. This aspect of climate change affects the western side of our continent from Alaska to Bolivia, excluding only the more tropical regions. For Okanogan County in Washington State, our wildfires began in late May this year with smoke plumes as harbingers.

Wildland wildfire in Nevada

Wildland wildfire in Nevada

Over a decade ago when we first moved here, Intrepid Guy, who grew up in Spokane, Washington, and I committed to fire proofing our home and property. We wanted no soft-bodied firefighter to stand between an inferno and our house. Our house perches where sagebrush steppe meets Ponderosa pine communities, landscapes that normally thrive with periodic fires. However, lowering water tables, beetle infestations, and fire suppression have reduced these communities’ resistance to wildfire damage. Here are the choices we made:

  • Fire-resistant fiber-cement siding (Hardy Board);
  • Metal roofing;
  • Lava rock mulch out 10 feet plus from the foundation;
  • Rock based circular driveway;
  • Islands of native and drought-resistant plantings with rock mulch and drip system hydration;
  • Native grasses and brush cut back at least 40 feet;
  • Lower branches of our Ponderosas and Douglas fir removed;
  • Predominantly metal structures versus wooden within 50 feet of the house; and,
  • Buried 1,750 gallon tank, topped off and better than spitting on a fire.
Firewise living

Firewise living

When the first wildfire threatened our home on July 4th seven years ago, it started within a quarter mile—bordering the steep slope leading to our home. Not good. Fire devours landscape uphill in its quest for oxygen.

Exemplary Department of Natural Resources (DNR) crews along with local volunteer departments aided by water and fire-retardant air drops limited this human caused wildfire to nine acres of non-fireproofed landscape. Trees crowned, wildlife fled or died, and I baked muffins, although not well, while brewing iced tea for the crews. The DNR incident manager designated our home as a safe house for sheltering firefighters. When we were told to evacuate, we did. We pay hefty fire insurance fees, keep important papers in a safe deposit box, and again, don’t choose to have a person stand between us and fire.

Flames through the trees

Flames through the trees

With this season’s injuries and deaths of Forest Service firefighters, the loss of 7 million acres—and counting—in the western United States, we all need to assess our part in these disasters. Beyond addressing human caused climate change, what else can we do to minimize the destructive force of wildfire?

When the fire bear comes over the mountain

When the fire bear comes over the mountain

When wildfire eats toward us, we take what’s most important: the living critters we’re responsible for and each other. The house and landscape? That’s just stuff.

What matters

What matters most

Twitterpated with Wild Turkey by Janine Donoho

Flock of wild toms

Flock of wild toms

During our nearly 200 hikes yearly, we revel in seasonal birdlife, although twitterpated spring and wildcare summer offer choicest viewing times. As avian couples woo and mate, then raise their young, you glimpse variations on parenting themes. For wild turkeys, commitment shy toms have all the fun while hens band together to raise their broods.

Full plumage tom

Full plumage tom

Treed tom

Treed tom

A slow-mo hike along an old logging road in Okanogan National Forest with our fourteen pound predator, otherwise known as Mighty Italian Greyhound (MIGgy), prompts spontaneous flushing of a Meleagris gallopavo from the underbrush. As often happens, this wild tom exceeds cartoonish expectations by being quick on the wing, cunning, and beautifully feathered in iridescent bronzes and greens with the hallmark scaled legs and wattle reminiscent of its reptilian ancestors. Its verbal complaint while flying resembles gobbled outrage rather than the silly preschool sound human throats make. Once the tom alights on a ponderosa pine branch, MIGgy takes a victory lap. Wild turkeys protecting their territory can be aggressive. Who can blame them when so many end up on dinner tables? So give the hound a nod.

Why does the turkey cross the logging road? It’s all about food, water, and shelter. Like us, turkeys appreciate the finer things in life. For our local populations that means established ponderosa forests, where turkeys feast upon seeds and fruits along with occasional insects and a chaser of grit—yum! Hens hollow out ground nests in debris at bases of trees and shrubs, but roost on higher limbs due to rapacious coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, mountain lions, raptors, and—yes, us. They’re also one of this nation’s few conservation success stories, returning from populations of 30,000 birds in the early 1900s to over 7,000,000 today. Evidently the idea of facing an empty Thanksgiving platter roused our national fervor to deal with habitat degradation and poaching.

Wild thing, I think I love ya...

Wild thing, I think I love ya…

With their dense bone structure, turkey fossil records date back to over 5,000,000 years ago. Undomesticated birds are no more like their meal-on-the-talon version than cows are like fierce and extinct aurochs. Today we incapacitate domesticated turkeys by favoring massive breasts that overbalance the poor beasties—and no, we’re talking meaty breasts versus silicon here. This trend began five hundred years ago, spreading to a global phenomenon when Spaniards made off with turkeys domesticated by Aztecs. The bird’s eponymous name may originate from early transport through Turkey on their way to Europe.

Wily tom heading for deep cover

So today, up with turkeys. Yes, call me twitterpated.

Turkey hens & brood

Turkey hens & brood

What local birds raise your spirits? How do you enhance their habitat?

Soundings, Water Elemental

LaunchFebruary 27th, 2015
The big day is here.

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