So far, a Senate wildfire reform bill has found positive response among private forest landowners.
Maybe because it’s not so much different from what they already do.
Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA), said that proposed reforms are “trying to do a good job of identifying where we can use improvements.”
The trade association represents nearly 50 private forest landowners in the state.
SB 6657, which cleared the Senate Ways and Means Committee during an executive session Thursday, looks to change Department of Natural Resources (DNR) policy on wildfire prevention and suppression practices.
Among its provisions is updating the smoke management plan for the first time in nearly twenty years in order to have prescribed fires on DNR-managed land. The bill has been referred to the Senate Rules Committee for possible advancement to a Senate floor vote and then House consideration.
Jerry Franklin, an Ecosystems Analysis professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forestry Sciences, recently told Lens, that prescribed burns should be a “regular management tool” for the state’s forests.
Franklin explained, “So many of our forests in these drier regions are allowed to become intensely overgrown,” he said. “We first need to restore them to a less combustible condition they’re in right now.”
Paving the way perhaps, for SB 6657, is HB 2928. Already approved by both chambers, it would allow DNR to carry out a forest health improvement project even when it exceeds normal air quality restrictions on outdoor burning. DNR would submit a report on the pilot project by the end of 2018.
Meanwhile, SB 6657 got bi-partisan support in the Senate, and Majority Caucus Chair Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (R-12), one its cosponsors, doesn’t anticipate much opposition moving forward.
Senate and capitol sources have been indicating that lawmakers want to do more than just pay for last year’s wildfires. DNR policy also needs to change.
“I believe other legislators from both sides of the Cascades saw how the 2015 fire season was even worse than the historic 2014 fire season and came to the Capitol this year realizing we needed to take action on the policy side – not just pay the bills from fighting the 2015 fires,” Parlette wrote.
Many of the concepts in SB 6657 are similar to what’s employed by private landowners who work in conjunction with local and state firefighting agencies, along with the use of their own tools.
‘Meanwhile, The West Burns’
“‘I’m just thrilled that the legislature is focusing on some cost-effective ways to lessen the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” said Patti Case, public affairs manager for The Green Diamond Resource Company. “It’s pretty easy to wring your hands and say ‘We can’t do anything, nature’s in charge.’ Meanwhile, the west burns.” Green Diamond is a fifth-generation, family-owned forest products company that owns land in Washington, California and Oregon.
Green Diamond spends roughly $500,000 a year in equipment, manpower and prevention techniques. Among them are daily flights over their land during the fire season, with an emphasis on early detection. They also maintain strong communication with local government fire districts, which she said enables them to extinguish fires before they get out of control.
Additionally, they keep their forests thinned to keep fuel levels down. That’s something Doumit of the WFPA said needs to happen more on federal lands.
Doumit also sees early detection and fast responses as essential. “The main goal of our firefighting and the policy work is to get on the fires quick and to get them out quick and improve our initial response,” he said.
The strategy seems to work well. In 2015, Green Diamond had 13 fires on or adjacent to their land, according to Case. Yet only 54 acres were burned, thanks to early detection and suppression tactics. In fact, seven of the fires were dealt with before the DNR responded.
But Case said it’s also about location. The company’s Washington land is all on the western side of the state, where it’s much wetter and less prone to drought. There are also more local fire services. In the eastern part of the state, DNR is sometimes the only firefighting agency available due to a sparser population.
Some Eastern Washington residents have criticized DNR for negligence during last year’s wildfires, particularly the Carlton Complex Fire. And two related lawsuits are pending. However, DNR’s after-action review of the fire obtained by the Lens did not mention any negligence on the part of personnel.
Case said Green Diamond has no complaints about the agency’s response to wildfires on their lands.
DNR Does ‘An Outstanding Job’
“They do an outstanding job,” Scott Katchum, general manager for Hancock Forest Management’s Northern Inland Division. “There’re certain folks that will criticize them, but the number of fires they stopped before they got to any significant size was pretty impressive. I have a lot of respect for those guys. I certainly didn’t see any mismanagement.”
Katchum believes the horrible weather conditions were responsible for consuming 10,000 acres of land they manage in Washington.
“It was just a plain horrible year,” he said. “It really didn’t matter what you had done in the past.”
Hancock’s managed land in the state is all private. Although they still have to deal with state regulations, not being in federal jurisdiction gives them latitude to harvest timber, keep the forests thinned and prevent fuel-buildup, as well as use prescribed fires occasionally.