New Approach To Wildfires Brewing

New Approach To Wildfires Brewing
Small wildfires are breaking out across Washington but overall damage and total acreage burned so far in 2016 has been much less than in the last two summers. Stakeholders and lawmakers see more inter-jurisdictional and public-private cooperation as essential. Photo: Washington DNR.

Despite a state of emergency declared in response to recent Washington wildfires, the season so far has been much kinder than the last two, when historic complex fires ravaged federal, state and private forestlands. Most of the damage so far this summer has been on non-forest acreage in one large Yakima County fire.

Nonetheless, on Tuesday Washington Governor Jay Inslee declared an emergency in 20 of the state’s 39 counties due to extreme fire conditions and ongoing wildfires. Most of the 82 reported wildfire starts since August 18 are smaller, and the vast majority are being attributed to humans. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has also an outdoor burn ban on DNR-protected forestlands.

Far Less Acreage Burned So Far This Year

As of August 25, wildfires had burned 292,011 acres in Washington, according to the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center (NWCC). That is less than a third of the acreage burned in 2015.

In 2014, 386,000 acres were burned. That included the largest wildfire in state history.

Over half the land burned to date this year has been in the Range 12 Fire, which consumed 176,600 acres of rangeland east of Yakima. The fire has been contained since August 7.

Forest Service officials told Lens they’re currently fighting only one major wildfire, in the Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest at Buck Creek.

Firefighting Costs Much Lower So Far, Too

Costs for fighting Washington wildfires this year are also lower. A rough estimate by NWCC puts it at about $16 million, although this only accounts for wildfires larger than 100 acres. The figure is expected to increase by the end of the season as more financial data become available.

The state doled out $278 million to pay for fighting wildfires in 2015, and $100 million in 2014.

Additional wildfires could also increase the state tab. Although NWCC forecasts a normal wildfire season for the remainder of August, it anticipates unusually warm temperatures in September.

Earlier Suppression, Improved Teamwork

Better weather conditions have helped fire suppression efforts. State and local fire agencies have had success in putting out many fires early on, compared to previous years. That is according to Janet Pearce, communications manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildfire division.

Pearce said training academies held earlier this year throughout the state run by DNR for state and local firefighters were essential, and have improved teamwork in the field. “We were able to train more of us together,” she said.

Having fewer and less severe wildfires has allowed DNR to focus deployment of firefighters near land in Eastern Washington with a high risk of fire.

The promising results to date in 2016 could influence state lawmakers considering legislation next session to develop better fire suppression tactics. One approach might be to make equipment-sharing between jurisdictions easier.

Another piece of the puzzle is how to continue to improve initial fire responses. The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee plans to make recommendations to the governor this fall on that.

Private Forest Owners Encouraged

For private forest officials in Washington, things seem to be moving in the right direction. A major concern for them has been improved communication and collaboration between state and local fire districts.

Mark Doumit is the executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents 50 private forest landowners in the state. He told Lens that Eastern Washington members “were pleased they had been engaged more by DNR than in the past, to talk about how landowners might work with fire crews and coordinate efforts. Really, we think that DNR has done a good job of managing large fires.”

Rep. Dent: More Sharing of Equipment

Some state lawmakers want to open up inter-agency use of existing equipment such as dozers and airplanes. State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) told Lens he’s considering legislation in the 2017 session that would do just that. Dent is a ranking minority member of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Those changes might also be included among the recommendations made by the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. The 14-member group is headed by Gary Berndt, a retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region.

The committee had its most recent meeting Wednesday. A final meeting is planned for September 28, with their report to the governor expected by October.

Rep. Blake: Nighttime Firefighting Could Help

State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) is the chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He told Lens he hopes the committee pushes for more night-time firefighting, something Pateros Mayor and volunteer firefighter Carlene Anders has also promoted.

“If the terrain is appropriate, you can get a lot done when the humidity is higher and the winds are down,” Blake said. “Now that’s not always appropriate in steep areas, but it can be done, and I think from what I’ve learned, there’s some room for improvement.”

Doumit added that getting the roles of different government agencies right is key.

“We want this thing to be a collaborative effort, but really see DNR as top of the command structure,” he said. “The federal government and DNR need to be more in sync on what the operations on the ground are going to be.”

Forestry is the third largest manufacturing industry in Washington, providing 105,000 related jobs and generating $4.9 billion in annual wages.

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