Planned Fires To Prevent Mega-Fires: You May See More Of That In Washington

Buck Creek Fire during the 2016 wildfire season. Experts say prescribed burns would restore sick and overly dense forests, but local air quality agencies heavily limit the practice. Photo: fs.fed.us

Although the 2016 Washington wildfire season paled in comparison to the two years prior, experts warn an era of mega-fires is on the horizon, unless the state addresses poor forest health, and fast. Recent state House committee hearings suggest a growing bipartisan consensus on the need for improved forest management practices. Potential reforms could also gain impetus from the results of a current Department of Natural Resources (DNR) pilot project for prescribed burning, approved by lawmakers last year.

Air Standards, And Prescribed Burns

Eleven regional agencies regulate air quality in the state, along with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Ecology. However, regional air quality rules often dampen possibilities of prescribed burns scheduled by state agencies such as DNR, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

That needs to change, says Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab. At a January 19 presentation to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, he stressed to panel members the overall air quality benefits of allowing prescribed burns, before or after wildfire season. It is the same recommendation made in a 2015 commentary by Jerry Franklin, an Ecosystems Analysis professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

Last year’s wildfires burned 293,717 acres, less than a third of the one million acres consumed in 2015; and almost a quarter less than the 386,000 acres burned in 2014. Wildfire suppression costs in recent years have forced the state legislature to tap emergency funds. The 2014 and 2015 wildfires cost the state $278 million. Last year’s fires cost only $45 million; DNR is asking for $24 million in the 2017 supplemental budget for defrayal.

Calculating True Costs

However, the financial impact of wildfires reach well beyond the tab for firefighting. For every dollar spent battling those blazes, Hessburg said an estimated $24 should be factored in for rebuilding and restoring damaged buildings and infrastructure, and lost business revenue.

While the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee has published recommendations to DNR on how to improve initial wildfire response, Hessburg says firefighting alone is an “incomplete solution.”

‘Using Fire To Manage The Forest’

State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19), chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, told Lens, “We have mismanaged our forests. It’s not that we shouldn’t fight fire, but we need to fight fire while simultaneously using fire to manage the forest, along with managing resources from the forest. You can still get logs, but fire is part of the ecology of the landscape, and using fire in the shoulders or margins of the fire season, along with logging and that mill infrastructure, all these pieces fit together to manage a healthy forest.”

Blake added, “Folks have got a regulatory structure that they can apply to prescribed fire, but Mother Nature doesn’t have to get any permits, when she just goes wild. We have to get to a place where the regulators understand, we can have a little smoke, year after year, and not experience the mega-smoke, so badly….”

Clearing Regulatory Hurdles

Deputy Minority Leader Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7) said January 19 that “we’ve got some hurdles to clear” regarding air quality constraints to better treat sick forests. Kretz was the primary sponsor for HB 2928, a law passed last year. It was cosponsored by Agriculture and Natural Resources members State Rep. Derek Stanford (D-11), then-Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-44), and Blake. The law allows DNR greater flexibility to issue burn permits in an effort to promote greater forest wildfire resistance.

Firefighting costs are affecting the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) as well. Last year, over half of the federal agency’s budget was spent on fire suppression, compared to just 17 percent in 1991. USFS also struggles with local air quality constraints in Washington when attempting to carry out prescribed burns in counties such as Chelan, where it has jurisdiction over 80 percent of the land.

Obtaining Social License For Prescribed Burning

Healthy forests need prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads and allow fire-resilient trees to grow again, said Hessburg, citing other regions in the U.S. where controlled burns are permitted by “social license” or community consensus, even if technically prohibited by rules.

“Land managers can pull off the prescribed burning,” Hessburg said. “They’re making less smoke, and latitude was given. And we need to create that, by having a better conversation in Washington State about how we trade prescribed burning smoke for wildfire smoke.”

When asked by Blake whether lawmakers should try to build social license under current clean air laws, or change them, Hessburg said “I think we can do both.”

One option is to expand a DNR pilot project last fall called Putting Fire To Work, that allowed prescribed burns even if they exceeded air quality standards. It is a move supported by newly-elected Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who wants to make it a long-term agency program.

At a January 17 meeting of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Franz told panel members the state needs to ensure “that we are implementing the kinds of tools we’ve seen work.”

The results of that pilot project may also provide lawmakers with the momentum to create the “social license” needed for further prescribed burning despite existing air quality standards. A DNR report on the pilot project is due to lawmakers by late 2018.

Two Senate Bills Introduced

In the meantime, two bills on wildfires introduced by Sen. Randi Becker (R-2) were scheduled for public hearings Tuesday, January 24 in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Parks. One is SB 5198, to require that DNR inform lawmakers what are the “best firefighting methods, products and technologies to protect Washington during future wildfire incidents.”

SB 5199 would ensure the state buys and has on hand equipment for qualified volunteer wildfire fighters. Becker said, “My brother wanted to volunteer to fight the wildfires in 2015 and couldn’t because he could not afford all the necessary equipment. We will be much more effective at protecting our land and people from the devastation the fires bring if the state accepts the responsibility for not only tracking qualified volunteers, but for outfitting them with the necessary tools.”

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