Restoring ForestsRestoring Forests to a Natural and Healthy State

By Jack Petree

According to Connor Craig, the owner of Wildfire Home Protection and Wildfire Safe, the best wildland firefighting is done before a potentially catastrophic wildfire threatens forests and other wildlands. “We need to set ourselves and wildfire up for success, not catastrophic failures like we’ve witnessed over the last few decades,” Connor contends. Further, “We need to give firefighters a fighting chance when the time comes. The only way to do this is to take an aggressive stance on forest restoration including thinning and prescribed burning. My mission, from my first day in business, is wildfire prevention through restoring our forests to a natural and healthy state.”

Prior to leaving the U.S. Forest Service to go into business on his own, Connor was a six-year veteran firefighter on the Entiat Hotshot Crew, fighting large fires across the United States, including Alaska. Connor explains, “It seemed like we were either doing large burnouts [backfires] because the fire behavior was too extreme to go direct—due to our forests being extremely overstocked and unhealthy—or we were reducing fuels around homes and neighborhoods to protect them from the oncoming fire. I thought, every year we are losing thousands upon thousands of acres of precious forestlands, gone for centuries because we haven’t prepared the forests for fire beforehand. That’s not acceptable!”

Connor’s formal education in natural resource management at Central Washington University and his years of experience firefighting and managing crews finally led him to go into business himself—something he had always thought about doing. “I had the knowledge, and I saw the need for the service. I wanted to see if I could achieve the American Dream, work for myself, and build something I could be proud of.”

Connor’s company specializes in non-commercial thinning forest restoration projects. Connor says, “We do everything from smaller fire-wise projects within the wildland urban interface (WUI) to large-scale restoration projects in the front country.”

Restoring ForestsThe Fecon 150 FTX and two ASV RT120's along with a Bandit 15 XPC
are ready to roll.

From the beginning, Connor has shaped his company to specialize in preparing forests in advance for health and resilience after those forests have either experienced controlled fire or uncontrolled wildfire; he leaves the harvest end of the equation to others. “We mainly stick to non-commercial thinning, but we do work with a few different loggers and foresters cleaning up slash post-harvest,” he comments.

Connor says he generally runs a crew of four or five people. “We do a variety of both large and small jobs, but I like the larger projects because our goal is to restore the forest on a landscape level.”

Striving for What Mother Nature Intended

Connor’s business efforts are more than just a job for him, they represent a way to realize his passion for forest restoration, bringing the forest to a place where the forest is healthy, resilient, and resistant to catastrophic fire. “This is a HUGE job, and our team is more than qualified, willing, and able to tackle this one acre at a time,” he said.

“Our team implements restoration techniques that dramatically reduce the forest’s hazardous fuel load. This greatly reduces the risks associated with living in the wildland urban interface. We also strive to make our forests more heterogenous, thus increasing the forest’s resistance to fire and enhancing resilience (the ability of a forest to bounce back to its original condition) after fire.”

Specialized Equipment for a Variety of Jobs

According to Connor, homogenous and overgrown forests are much more susceptible to bug infestation and disease, which coupled with other factors can increase a fire’s intensity and the speed the fire will spread. “This type of fire will quickly spread through the crowns of trees and become extremely hard to control. By restoring our forest to a more historical state, we will also restore a more historical fire regime. A regime closer to what Mother Nature intended for our beautiful neck of the woods. We need to remember that wildfire is Mother Nature’s forester, limiting disease and promoting healthy forests by governing itself through a healthy fire regime and a mosaic landscape. Wildfire should not be viewed as the Wicked Witch of the West.”

Restoring ForestsFecon's got the teeth for the job.

To tackle the range of jobs Connor’s team handles, the company’s equipment roster includes a 150 FTX forestry mulcher that is especially utilized on steep slopes and in snowy conditions. Two ASV RT120 forestry mulchers are mostly put to work doing forest thinning on flat terrain. A Takeuchi TB290 excavator mulcher handles roadside clearing, and a Bandit 15XPC wood chipper is utilized for reducing fiber to chips when needed and is also an important resource made available to the Forest Service during firefighting season.

“There is only so much forestland on the eastern slopes of the Cascades,” Connor continues. “We need to act. We need to preserve and conserve this resource for future generations. We need to protect our homes and communities in the wildland urban interface. We need to give firefighters a fighting chance when the time comes to actually fight an active fire.”

Cooperation Is the Start

An important part of Connor’s work on behalf of clients is helping them interact with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “Ninety-five percent of what we do is on private land,” he says.

Connor points out that successfully treating forests for health and resilience in the face of fire requires considerable cross-jurisdictional cooperation. “Wildfire doesn’t care about lines on a map or about who owns the land, so we work closely with the DNR.” Connor says he advises landowners to contact DNR about cost-sharing programs for home and property owners, some of which will cover up to 75% of fuels reduction and restoration costs.

Connor emphasizes, “The only way to do all of this is to take an aggressive stance on forest restoration, i.e. thinning and prescribed burning. We need to start at the local level treating our residential properties and then work our way out to larger private and public sectors of land.”

Restoring ForestsThe Fecon FTX 150 is built rough and ready to easily tackle steep slope terrain.

Connor’s education in natural resource management and his experience as a wildfire fighter informs his approach to every job. “I usually look at the property as if I was rolling in there with my fire crew back in the day with a wildfire burning nearby on a windy late July afternoon. That’s where I start. I look at it through the eyes of a firefighter and work backwards from there,” Connor says about his planning strategy.

Connor is passionate about developing healthier forests. “We take great pride in our work and treat each project as if we were working on our own property. Understanding we need fewer, healthier trees per acre on this side of the mountains, we work to restore forests to approximate their original condition as forests capable of withstanding the kinds of traditional fire events some forests need to be fully healthy. Our goal is to restore forests on a landscape level, protecting homes and communities, and making fires burn with less intensity in order to both improve the forests and to make fire suppression, when needed, safer and more manageable.”

TimberWest November/December 2013
May/June 2022

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