Maintaining forest health helps control catastrophic wildfires.

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We are now in the midst of Washington’s annual fire season, which runs from April through October. While wildfires have historically been rare in Western Washington, smoke drifting from other parts of the Pacific Northwest can worsen Seattle’s normally healthy air quality.

Fire is a natural part of the life cycle of a healthy forest. Without fire, invasive tree species can invade a forest and tip it away from a healthy equilibrium. Without fire, unhealthy trees can become a home to destructive pest infestations, leaving thousands of acres of dead, dry, standing fuel waiting for the next errant spark or lightning strike. More fuel means more – and bigger – fires.

Maintaining forest health helps control catastrophic wildfires. Strategic thinning, whether performed through special programs or more commonly done in the course of agricultural forestry, and controlled burns control the available fuel. Early suppression can help contain fires that threaten to get out of control. Post-fire recovery work minimizes erosion and protects soil, preserves fish habitat and helps prevent landslides.

Wildfire education is the focus of the newest exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in collaboration with Washington Forest Protection AssociationPuget Sound Clean Air AgencyWashington Department of Natural Resources, Allied Arts FoundationSeattle Center and local artist Ted Youngs and Big Power Project. The exhibition runs through September 15th.

Haunting art installation

“Our goal is to create a haven for dialogue about this new very real threat to our environment and health,” says Ted Youngs, who designed “The Smoke Season,” an art installation using trees from the Jolly Mountain Fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest that smothered the Puget Sound region in smoke in August 2017. “If this summer is like the previous two, there is more smoke to come. We need to be aware and prepared.”

Youngs and Big Power Project erected three art installations across Seattle Center’s campus.

  • “Lone Fir” stands 40 feet tall, surrounded by the white arches of Pacific Science Center’s inner courtyard. This tree represents the 35,000 acres of forest that burned during the Jolly Mountain fire.
  • “Distress Signal” is a giant SOS written with carbonized logs in 52,000-point font. It sits directly to the east of PacSci on the Broad Street lawn. This piece is so large it may not be legible from the ground. “Hopefully, together, we will decipher its meaning,” Youngs says.
  • “Future Shadows,” also on Broad Street, is made of four burnt Douglas fir laid at the base of four living London planetrees, a quiet space to meditate on the fragile balance of our time.

Educational museum display

PacSci is complementing “The Smoke Season” with a museum display, “Wildfire,” that provides insights into the causes and impacts on environmental and human health.

“The reasons for the increase in forest fires during the past decade are very complex, but one simple fact is that 80 percent of forest fires in the country are started by humans,” says Diana Johns, Pacific Science Center Vice President of Exhibits & Life Sciences. “This problem involves all of us, and it will take all of us to solve. This collaborative exhibition is a great starting point.”

The Department of Natural Resources’ 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan has spurred legislative gains in forest health investments in recent years. For example, one recent bill, 2SHB 1784, directs the DNR to emphasize forest health treatments that are strategically planned to assist with wildfire response and to protect commercial lands from a spreading fire.

“I was on the ground this spring where the catastrophic Camp Fire ravaged through California,” says Mark Doumit, Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association. “Strategically planned forest health treatments, like the ones directed in this bill, were responsible for slowing down that fire and saving countless acres, structures, and even lives from its path. It’s critical that the Legislature signal that these are the outcomes it expects as it increases investment in forest health treatments.”

In “Wildfire,” guests can witness Seattle’s dramatic, recent smoky summers and how different the city looks when smoke rolls in through multiple views and interactives. Compare and contrast the view from the top of the Space Needle on clear and smoky days in 2018, or manipulate a digital photo interactive featuring images from “Crosscut” and watch the skyline change before your eyes.

Visitors can also test their knowledge of common wildfire hazards at both campsites and houses using a sorting game to learn why some items pose dangers and others don’t. Learn simple tricks to improve personal well-being during fire season, as well as innovative community and design methods that can help humans to transition into a new era of fire safety.

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington State. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and re-grow trees on about 4 million acres.