During the Carlton Complex, the fire traveled 40 miles in 9 hours, burning 160,000 acres. Photo: Hilary Lundgren, WRCD

Editor’s Note: Hilary is the Program Director of the Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC). WAFAC is sponsored by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and FAC Net and administered by the Washington Resource Conservation and Development Council (WRCD). Here Hilary rounds up some of the valuable resources that were shared as part of the WAFAC led Fire in the Shrub-steppe Webinar series in 2020. The webinar series was widely attended and brought forward valuable conversations, lessons and tools needed to protect and restore this special ecosystem. Hilary would like to acknowledge Tessa Vermeul, Fire Landscapes and Communities Coordinator for the WRCD and Alison Green from AJG Consulting. Tessa was instrumental in planning and coordinating this effort and Alison helped pull the resources together. 

The sagebrush steppe is one of the largest ecosystems in North America and one of the most threatened. Up until the mid-19th century, there was an estimated 10.4 million acres of the shrub-steppe in Washington State. As a result of colonization, farming, ranching and non-native plant settlement, less than 20% of this ecosystem remains (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife). And year after year, we see some of the largest fires in Washington race across these landscapes, devastating communities and threatening critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. Year after year, Washington tribes, communities and land managers race to protect the people and animals that call this habitat their home.

Plumes of smoke rise in the distance with a rock face in the foreground and shrub-steppe landscape

The proportion of landscapes that are burning in Washington are critical shrub-steppe ecosystems. In 2020 alone, 75% of the total acres burnt in Washington State (600,000 acres) was shrub-steppe lands. More investments are needed to help protect the little remaining shrub-steppe ecosystems we have left. Photo: 2018 Conrad Road Fire. Credit Ryan Anderson, WRCD.

“If you have fire in the wrong place, it can be a problem. It can cause further degradation to the landscape and make it harder to get back to the community we are hoping to build plants and animals. But, if you have fire in the right place, it can do a whole lot of good. It can be good for the sage grouse and all of the other species that depend on sagebrush, along with the other plants in the community.” Alison Dean, Fire Behavior and Ecology of the Shrub-Steppe

Protecting and recovering this ecosystem and the species that live, work and thrive in this habitat is complex. Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (WAFAC) members began expressing the need to understand the role of fire in the shrub-steppe ecosystem, mitigate impacts from wildfire to communities and to better understand the critical considerations for restoring these landscapes.

Seven people along a dirt road load clippings into a chipper

Chelan County Fire District 1 assists their community with wildland-urban interface fuel reduction in the shrub-steppe. Credit: Chelan County Fire District 1.

To help support WAFAC members and facilitate connections between partners in this work, we planned a 3-day conference entitled Wildfire in the Shrub-Steppe. We had 15 presenters scheduled, buses confirmed, food ordered and logistics set, and then two days before the conference, COVID-19 took over. We had to cancel everything.

We quickly pivoted and developed a five-part webinar series featuring 14 panelists who addressed hallmark considerations of landscape management and fire adaptation in the shrub-steppe. The 5 parts included: 

  1. Fire Behavior and Ecology 
  2. Threatened and Endangered Species 
  3. Vegetation Management – Grazing and Mechanical Treatments 
  4. Engaging Communities in Fire Adaptation
  5. Vegetation Management – Invasive Species, Native Grasses and Seeds
Screenshot of a video for the webinar series entitled: "Fire in the Shrub-Steppe: Fire Behavior and Ecology"

The videos and all resources shared for the 5-part webinar are all hosted on the WAFAC website.

The turnout exceeded our expectations, we averaged 125 participants per webinar and because it was online rather in person we were able to engage with participants across the West. Throughout the series, participants took part in rich conversations with experts working on the resilience of the shrub-steppe ecosystem and with communities from across the West. Following each webinar session, panelists shared resources specific to the discussion and links to resource libraries essential for understanding the management of this ecosystem. The resources shared, the dialogue exchanged and the lessons learned were so valuable. Here are some of our favorites

  1. This Land is Part of Us: A short film produced by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Conservation Northwest. For wildlife lovers, hunters and anglers, Indigenous peoples, farmers and ranchers, outdoor recreationists and so many others, this land is no desert devoid of life, this land is part of us. 
  2. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has recently launched a new web page that includes extensive publications and guides, educational materials, research, and initiatives
  3. Conservation Northwest’s Sagelands Heritage Program works to protect, connect and restore shrub-steppe landscapes from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley to south-central Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills for the good of both wildlife and people. The site includes updates on their recent work and initiatives to protect and recover the shrub-steppe ecosystem.
  4. The Great Basin Fire Exchange recently hosted a Fuel Breaks in Sage Brush webinar series. Their site also includes an extensive list of publications, resources, and training opportunities related to sage and rangeland management.
  5. This resource list includes links to curriculum for educators and ideas for restoration for FAC practitioners.


We thank the panelists for their unwavering commitment to protecting and restoring these lands and the communities that rely on them. We recognize the loss that many of these crucial habitats experienced during the 2020 fires and thank these panelists for their dedication, passion and passing on of the stories and experiences from these places. 


Morrison P.H. 2014. Carlton Complex Wildfires – A Rapid Initial Assessment of the Impact of Washington State’s Largest Wildfire. Pacific Biodiversity Institute, Winthrop, Washington. 38 pp.

Conservation Northwest, Sagelands Heritage Program

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Shrub-Steppe Resources

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