Land Manager Shawn Soliday Honored with Commissioner’s Award for Public Service

Shawn Soliday

Shawn Soliday, one of four DNR employees honored this year for their public service efforts

Shawn Soliday is one of four DNR Northeast Region staff who received the Commissioner’s Award for Public Service this year. The awards are presented annually by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark to recognize DNR employees for outstanding job performance. Shawn and his colleagues were honored for always answering the call to fulfill DNR’s wildfire mission. In the nomination submitted by a DNR Northeast Region assistant manager, the four deserved special recognition for “taking initiative and acting decisively and competently on several adverse and demanding Type 3 wildfires last year.”

Shawn wears two hats at DNR, dividing his time between the leasing program and fire control, where he serves as a Type 3 Fire Team Incident Commander, instructor, and in a number of other fire positions for the region which oversees DNR activities in Ferry, Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Spokane and Stevens counties and the northern half of Lincoln County. He’s worked at DNR since his teens, when he was first hired as a seasonal firefighter. This year will be his 35th fire season. Over the years, Shawn has also worked as a forester and rangeland manager, and for the last 15 years, as an agricultural and grazing land manager.

“I’m that thing known as Institutional Knowledge,” he says with a laugh.

Soliday says his two favorite parts of the job are working with his DNR colleagues, and working with farmers and ranchers.

“I have some great lessees,” Shawn says. “They are good managers willing to do what it takes to care for the bunch grass community.”

He said DNR and ranchers share the goal of keeping rangelands healthy and productive. Experts and ranchers alike know that sustainable management of grazing land is both an art and a science.

Shawn credits the lessees for using adaptive management to find the right duration and intensity of grazing, which has resulted in highly productive, sustainable range lands. Shawn is especially sensitive to the fact that many of the operators leasing state trust parcels know the land far better than he does.

“I respect their skills and history with the land when explaining the science of resource management,” he says.

It’s been a tough few years in the region. At the same time that Northeast Region experienced back-to-back record fire seasons, Shawn has taken on the management of additional leases.

“It’s overwhelming sometimes,” he notes, adding that he appreciates the support and friendships with other DNR staff, whom he refers to as his DNR brothers and sisters.

“The best part of my job is my work family and the relationships we’ve built,” Shawn says.

Despite the challenges, Shawn Soliday approaches both fire control and land management duties with the same positive attitude, diligence, and dedication. Thanks for all you do Shawn!

By Kathleen Beach, Natural Resources Specialist, Agriculture Administration Unit, DNR Southeast Region

Carlton Made an Impact on State Lands in DNR’s Northeast Region

Carlton Complex Fire destructionLittle did I know that on July 14 our world in the DNR Northeast Region would be turned upside down. By the time the Carlton Complex Fire was finished, the magnitude of its force was hard to comprehend. Many questions would need to be asked and answered, assessments of damage determined, and a plan developed for recovery.Then, FEMA showed up. The President’s approval of public assistance was welcomed but also brought additional layers of work as we chartered unfamiliar territory for Northeast Region staff.

Carlton burned more than 48,000 acres of DNR-managed state trust lands. By far, most of these acres were grazing lands. Collectively, 17 preference permits within 5 permit ranges; 29 grazing leases; and 5 agriculture leases were impacted. More than 17,000 acres of forestland, 2 natural area preserves, and a lookout tower were burned or damaged as well. The sheer scale of damage to these and the trust assets associated with them was incomprehensible and consequently complicated the assessment in the direction of recovery.

Carlton Complex Fire-fencing destroyed

Some of the 77 miles of fencing on DNR state trust land destroyed in the Carlton Complex Fire in July 2014

A small army of land managers was dispatched to Carlton even before the flames had subsided to begin the difficult task of inventorying the damage. Many hours were spent on this effort. Later, many more hours were consumed compiling and assessing the damage.  More questions than answers permeated throughout the process. Calculating the damage to the level of precision required to obtain FEMA assistance brought additional challenges. Attention to detail at every level of the assessment was necessary to insure that the damaged assets would be repaired. This effort identified more than 77 miles of damaged range fencing. In addition, several stock water tanks and their associated watering systems were damaged.

Aside from an inventory of infrastructure damage, there was the assessment of the range condition to complete as well. Re-establishing monitoring plots and setting up new ones would be required so the range condition could be monitored over the years to follow. New baselines were developed for comparison of forage recovery and an overall health assessment of the plant communities. Follow-up visits each year will determine when the range can be grazed sustainably again. Initial estimates range from two seed set periods to five years rest may be necessary before cattle can occupy the pastures or leases again.

Much of the inventory, assessing, and planning is complete. The next phase will be the actual recovery effort that is expected to take two years – just in time for pastures that successfully develop forage quickly. A combination of contracting Washington Conservation Corps crews, and possibly correctional camps crews, is expected to be deployed to complete the repairs. Some of this work will include complete replacement of older fences made primarily with wood posts. Everything has been prioritized and charted on workflow charts. Since FEMA is a reimbursement program, the challenge will be to fund the work and the supplies that will be needed.

My hat is off to everyone who participated in this process for the professionalism and dedication they exhibited throughout the process, despite the frustrating challenges. Without their commitment, we would not be as far along as we are today.

By Bob McKellar, Northeast Region Assistant Region Manager, State Lands.

The BAER Team Experience after the Carlton Complex Fire

rill erosion

On a slope with rill erosion, the author poses with soil shovel in hand ready to work in the dirt.

Following the devastating Carlton Complex Fire in the summer of 2014, I was surprised and then very honored to be asked to participate in the first-ever multi-jurisdiction assessment team with the United States Forest Service (USFS) Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team.

Since I was born and raised in Okanogan County it meant a lot to me to be part of the team assessing the impacts of the fire. I was amazed by the magnitude of devastation and feel empathy for folks who suffered losses. I reflected on my heritage as I walked over the scorched lands on the same ground where my great-grandfather once traveled as a stagecoach driver from Pateros through Carlton onto Twisp and Winthrop.

The formation of the multi-jurisdiction assessment team is the result of a request by the Okanogan Conservation District to Governor Inslee. The team was assigned to conduct a rapid assessment of the fire area to determine whether the after-effects of the fire will pose a threat to life or property or will cause unacceptable degradation of natural or cultural resources.

After President Obama signed the Disaster Declaration on August 11, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) began coordinating with the Okanogan Conservation District and USFS to staff this team to complete an assessment on public and private lands.

The BAER team came together in a short amount of time and members included specialists in soils, hydrology and weather, engineering, fisheries, wildlife, range, cultural resources and GIS. The team represented national, state, local agencies and organizations from Washington state and other parts of the west.

sever head cut caused by erosion

The author stands on a Forest Service road looking at a severe head cut caused by erosion in the wake of the Carlton Complex Fire.

The team’s task was to collect and compile data and provide recommendations for emergency stabilization and long-term restoration to minimize impacts on private property and lands managed by Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Nation, Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

This two-week assignment consisted of long and tiring days, a high learning curve, great networking with professional experts, and an opportunity to employ adaptable management. It was awe-inspiring and humbling to experience the power and yet the forgiveness of nature.

The first day consisted of meeting team members, outlining our goals for threats and hazards, emergency rehabilitation treatments, and safety protocols. The next five days were set in the field performing transects and collecting data and validating the intensity of the fire to produce a final burn soil severity map. Actually getting to work in the dirt! The following week consisted of compiling and organizing the information for writing the BAER report. At the time it seemed daunting and an almost overwhelming task under a deadline.

quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove

A quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) grove regenerates following rainfall. Photo: Bill Oaks/DNR

Burned Area Reflectance Classification (BARC) and aerial reconnaissance data were combined to develop a preliminary “High”, “Moderate”, and “Low” fire intensity map for the Carlton Complex Fire. BARC imagery depicts the “intensity” or above-ground fire effects for making interpretations of fire impacts on pre-fire vegetation, soil and hydrologic conditions.

I understand now and have been enlightened that there is a difference between fire intensity and severity, learning that fire intensity and soil burn severity are often incorrectly used synonymously.

“Fire intensity relates to the above-ground fire effects generally identified through visual observations of changes in the overstory vegetation and ground fuels (type, amount, arrangement, and moisture content). Soil burn severity is the effect of fire at and below the ground surface, specifically how the fire changes the physical and chemical composition of the soils. While fire intensity is not primarily a reflection of wildfire effects on soils, observed changes from pre- to post-fire vegetation are used as indicators to estimate soil burn severity as a function of watershed response. Fire severity that detrimentally impacts soil conditions leads to further degradation of soil productivity and soil-hydrologic function

Source: Sawtooth National Forest, BAER, Cave Canyon Fire, Soil Resource Assessment, August 26, 2012)

With the loss of both overhead canopy and ground cover, severely burned soils lose their ability to protect the surface and absorb precipitation properly.

 bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata),

Skeletons of bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), an important plant for wildlife and for post-wildfire restoration throughout the West. Photo Bill Oakes/DNR

The results of the assessment helped to identify the severity of the fire and potential post-fire effects to critical values such as human life and safety, property (roads, buildings, municipal, domestic and agricultural water systems, etc.), degradation of natural resources (soil productivity and hydrologic function), habitat for federally listed species, cultural and heritage resources within or in close proximity to burned lands. Hazards that put values at risk include hillslope erosion, flooding, debris flows, and establishment of invasive or noxious plant species. One important outcome was to prioritize locations for aerial seeding treatment.

Grasses growing with some Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) regeneration. Photo: Bob Oakes/DNR

Grasses growing with some bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) regeneration. Photo: Bill Oakes/DNR

It is very difficult to capture the entire process in this article of creating the BAER report and there is much more to explain. It is a complex and interrelated progression that pulled together efficiently and effectively to produce a high quality product. Hopefully, we can take this experience and turn it into positive outcome and provide vision for the future; by having a team in place ready to hit-the-ground-running if anything closely resembles this unfortunate natural disaster occurs again.

I am grateful for this unique opportunity and learned a lot from associated colleagues of the project and ensuing comradery. Their dedication, cooperation and professionalism were inspiring and I am proud to have participated in this first ever inter-agency BAER team. Hopefully, I was able to contribute in small way something positive to the unfortunate people involved in this tragedy, DNR, and the environment.

I fought fires early in my career with both DNR and the USFS but the Carlton Complex was unlike anything I had ever seen. Although some areas looked like the proverbial “bomb struck it”, being able to actually get out in the “dirt” was an exciting adventure. To sum up my interesting experience, it reaffirmed my belief that just like the laws of conservation of energy and matter, the law of life can change form but cannot be extinguished!

Wishing everyone a healthy, productive and prosperous year to come. Happy trails,

Bill Oakes, Agricultural Stewardship, Monitoring and Compliance Specialist, DNR Product Sales & Leasing Division

2012 Barker Canyon–Leahy fires scorch state Trust grazing lands

Thousands of acres of grasslands leased for grazing were charred in the Barker Canyon Lehey fires. Photo: DNRThe 2012 Barker Canyon–Leahy Fires started with a lightning strike on September 8, 2012. The flames were swept by strong winds on September 10th  and 11th, and by the time firefighters gained control, the Barker ‘Canyon–Leahy’ Complex burned almost 91,200 acres of northeastern Douglas County.

This rapidly expanding fire burned in sagebrush, grasses and other dormant plants and the speed of the blaze challenged the firefighters trying to control it. Numerous engines and personnel were stationed near homes to control their perimeters. Despite this effort, three homes and 38 outbuildings were lost. The total cost of the fire was estimated at $1.9 million.

The state trust lands managed by the Department of Natural Resource (DNR) were affected more by the Leahy fire, which burned mostly west of Highway 17 and north of Highway 174, between Leahy Junction and Grand Coulee in the Del Rio area of Douglas County. About 9,650 acres of trust lands were burned by the fire—most of which were leased to local ranchers for grazing of their livestock. Effects of the fire have left many livestock producers searching for available pasture and hay to maintain their stock. An undetermined number of livestock were lost, and many contracted respiratory illnesses from inhaling the smoke.

DNR is working with lessees affected by the fire to rest the burned grazing lands for the 2013 season to allow them to recover. Producers will not have to pay rent for the charred acres during this deferral period, though they still will pay annual assessment fees.

Swath of Dopuglas County landscape scorched. Photo: DNR
Swath of Douglas County landscape scorched. Photo: DNR

DNR staff will work with those these lessees on a grazing program for those scorched lands that may be able to resume in early 2014 after the lands recover. Allowing the lands to rest for a grazing season will offer the grasses an entire growth cycle with no added stress from livestock grazing.

Fortunately, the fire moved so quickly that it did not burn the plants very long, which should allow for quicker regrowth. The Del Rio area also has had a cooler wet fall and early winter, which hopefully will store water within the soil profile to help plant regrowth.

Brett Tonne
Ephrata Unit Land Manager
Agriculture Program, Southeast Region