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As temperatures rise and the potential for forest fires grows in Central Washington, land managers are working diligently to ensure the risk of catastrophic damage is kept to a minimum.

The Nature Conservancy recently completed a project that helps to create fuel breaks and reduce underbrush and materials prone to burning on Cle Elum Ridge above Roslyn. The first phase of the project encompasses approximately 125 acres and was planned in conjunction with the Washington Department of Natural Resources 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan and 10-year Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan.

The Nature Conservancy Forest Manager Kyle Smith said the project on Cle Elum Ridge will eventually cover another 600 acres beyond the first phase. Heavy machinery with implements called masticators are being used to chew up small trees and underbrush on the treated lands.

“It’s kind of like an industrial strength lawnmower for the forest,” he said.

Smith said the work will help restore the structure and function of the forest, while the fuel breaks also hinder the ability of wildfires to enter the crowns of taller trees, preventing the spread of the fires once they are started.

“If we do get a fire coming through, there’s going to be less fuels,” he said. “It’s going to slow the fire down and get it down on the ground where the firefighters can control it better.”

Smith said The Nature Conservancy is also working to create fuel breaks on approximately 120 acres near Peoh Point, with other forest units ready for treatment once funding is located and secured. He said the treatment work can run between $600 and $1,200 per acre.

“It can get expensive pretty quick,” he said. “We’ve really prioritized the areas, and because it’s expensive you can’t do it everywhere.”

Smith said the trees being chewed up by the masticators don’t have any commercial value due to their size, which is why they aren’t being commercially thinned during the treatment process.

“That’s why these types of treatments are a cost,” he said. “It’s an investment, so we have to pay to get this work done. We have lots of other areas where we can do commercial thinning for restoration and actually pay for those costs, and that helps subsidize this work.”

Due to the prohibitive cost of the treatments, Smith said The Nature Conservancy has worked with the Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Kittitas Fire Adapted Communities Coalition to decide which forest units should be categorized as highest priority.

Once the mastication portion of the treatment is complete, Smith said prescribed burns are an effective follow-up tool to continue to reduce fuel load on the ground.

“That could be done every five to 10 years,” he said. “That would be ideal if we could do that and maintain this through prescribed burns.”

Depending on the site, Smith said they estimate the lifespan of the treatments to potentially last for five to 15 years. Even if more mastication is required on already treated lands, Smith said the cost would be significantly lower due to original treatment.

“You’re not doing actual trees,” he said. “You’re just kind of mowing it. It could be a combination of prescribed fire and mastication.”

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