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Very Old Firewood Tells A Tale Of Flammable Forests

A photographer from Wenatchee, Washington, has made a revealing discovery at the scene of a remote and long-abandoned fire lookout: a pile of very old firewood.

John Marshall has a contract to make cross-time comparisons by re-photographing landscape panoramas from Western fire lookouts. In the 1930s, Forest Service crews snapped the original panoramic photos.

That's what brought Marshall to the ruins of the Juniper Point lookout in northern Okanogan County, Washington.

"I spent quite a bit of time walking around and trying to find features from the original photograph,” he said.

Credit U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Forest Service
Notice the stack of firewood at the base of the fire-scarred tree in this detail from the 1938 panorama photo.

Marshall said he was "floored" to find a weathered, but unrotten pile of firewood in the same spot from 75 years ago.

"It shows how in the dry forest environment, decay is not the primary vehicle by which dead wood disappears,” Marshall said. “It's fire."

Marshall's work has made him a passionate advocate for increasing controlled burning of forest lands to reduce the fuel load and restore a semblance of the natural lifecycle.

Controlled burns -- also known as prescribed fire -- happen less in Washington state than in neighboring states because of state rules to limit smoke impacts on nearby communities. Marshall estimated that pre-1900, low-intensity wildfires burned naturally through the mid-elevation Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests of the Inland Northwest about every seven to 15 years.

The survival of remnants of the fire lookout at Juniper Point underscore that flammable, woody material such as limbs and twigs have built up in that part of the Loomis State Forest for more than 75 years.

"It's missed about four or five fire cycles," Marshall said.

Credit John Marshall
In the summer of 2015, the fire-scarred tree was still there and so was the firewood. People or cows are probably responsible for tipping over the stack and scattering the pieces.

Surrounding forests in Okanogan County ignited in catastrophic fashion this past summer, resulting in the biggest wildfire in modern Washington state history.

In an interview Wednesday, Marshall said Juniper Point was one of the most interesting among the many trips he has made to old lookouts on assignment for the U.S. Forest Service or the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

"There was never a tower at Juniper Point, only a platform in a tree known as a 'crow's nest,'" he said. "I spent about six hours looking for the site [in June]. It was not on a ridge-top but rather mid-slope."

Juniper Point was abandoned as a lookout site in 1941. At the site, Marshall said he also found the bleached wood remains of a tent platform and an earth and stone cooler or oven.

Last week, Marshall and an off-duty wildland firefighter carried a 16-foot orchard ladder to the old lookout site to re-capture the 1938 panoramas from the same height.

"If you look at the two photographs, the open spaces have largely been filled in with small Douglas fir trees," Marshall pointed out. "So you have more fuels of two types -- both the dead fuel and the live fuel. It all adds up to one very flammable forest."

Credit John Marshall
Cross time comparison of view from Juniper Point, west of Loomis, Washington.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.