it will be years before the timber holdings recover from the Tunk Block and North Star fires, says a member of the Lakes Band of the Colville and director of the tribes' Natural Resources Department.
Wildfire has burned more than 20 percent of the land managed for timber on the Colville Reservation, leaving a hole in the tribes’ budget.
Commercial timber revenues usually make up about $10 million of the approximately $45 million annual operating budget for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
But it will be many years before the tribe’s timber holdings recover from the Tunk Block and North Star fires that have been burning now for a month, Cody Desautel, a member of the Lakes Band of the Colville and director of the tribes’ Natural Resources Department, said Monday.
The fires were so hot in places they burned swaths of timber to black char and ash, sterilizing the soil. And they are so big, it took Desautel more than two hours recently to fly the North Star fire’s perimeter in a helicopter, he said.
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Typically a big fire for the tribe is 20,000 acres, or about 31 square miles. But the Tunk Block and North Star fires together cover more than 590 square miles, an area four times the size of the city of Seattle.
The North Star fire was about 45 percent contained Monday, but that could improve significantly in the next several days, said Kristen Allison, an information officer with the incident-management team helping fight the wildfires.
Cooler temperatures and rain predicted Wednesday will help the more than 1,260 firefighters and other personnel battling the blaze. The Tunk Block fire was 79 percent contained.
The North Star fire, which began Aug. 13, was human-caused. It remains under investigation. Cause of the Tunk Block fire is unknown.
The two fires together have devoured about 382,000 acres, and most of it is on the reservation. About half the Tunk Block fire is burning in grasslands. But the North Star fire is primarily in timber.
Preliminary estimates indicate the tribe has already lost about 131,000 acres of its 660,000 total acres managed for timber production. Damages are still being assessed; potential losses could be as much as 1 billion board feet burned up in all, Desautel said. “We won’t really know until we fly it.
“It’s a huge event. I can’t even begin to describe it,” he said. “There are parts that are just black. Standing, burned sticks.”
The tribe will try to salvage log what it can, as quickly as it can, Desautel said. But with the rugged terrain and fires still burning, it will be tough work. Losses could potentially affect everything the tribal government funds, from per capita payments to members to its government programs.
Also affected are upward of 1,000 cattle displaced or killed by the fire, and about 20 percent of the rangeland the tribe rents to ranchers on and off the reservation.
That means ranchers will have to find new pasture for their animals, or cull their herds at a loss. It will be at least three years before the burned pasture on reservation land will be grazed again, Desautel said.
Wildfire is devastating anywhere, but on the reservation, where tribal members depend on their lands for subsistence hunting, spiritual use and gathering berries and medicinal plants, the loss is deeply personal.
“A lot of families have specific places they have gathered from for a very long time, they have cultural and family ties to these places,” said Del Ostenberg of the Wenatchee Band of the Colville and an operations section chief at the Emergency Operations Center.
“All our food has been wiped out in a lot of these areas, the bear, the elk, the deer, the moose, as well as the smaller animals, our upland birds, there is nothing left out there for them to eat,” Ostenberg said.
Also lost in the fire were 15 homes, and an uncounted number of wells, ruined when the pumphouses burned, said Chris McCuen, a member of the Wenatchee Band of the Colville and emergency manager for the tribe. An estimated 200 miles of fencing was also destroyed, McCuen said.
Amid so much destruction, people are grieving, McCuen said. “This is our home, and to have so much damage done to it so quickly, that is going to be an impact for people and their mental health for a long time,” he said.