State lawmakers this week unanimously approved two bills directing the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to improve forestland health statewide as part of an overall wildfire prevention strategy. The vote comes after DNR officials warn of a potential outbreak of tree-killing bugs in eastern Washington, which they say is caused by the deteriorated forest conditions. It is one criteria they might use to identify which forest stands are most urgent need of restoration work as the department also begins preparations for the upcoming wildfire season.
A 2015 report put out by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) identified 2.7 million acres of Eastern Washington at risk of severe damage from insects and diseases. However, DNR officials have emphasized that the report was based on data gathered in 2014, before the 2015 wildfire season that burned over one million acres.
Preventing Tree-Killing Bug Outbreak
A March 31 article by DNR Forest Health Specialist Melissa Joy Fischer found that wildfire season has also left state forestland susceptible to outbreaks of the Douglas fir beetle, a bark beetle native to Washington.
“The best approach to prevent an outbreak this spring is to salvage any large diameter Douglas fir or western larch that were downed by the storms prior to the adult beetle flight, which should occur in April, depending on temperatures,” she concluded.
In the 2015-17 capital budget, the legislature allocated $10 million to DNR. With those funds the agency has increased the number of forest restoration projects, with work ongoing currently near Ellensburg and Yakima. More are planned for northeastern Washington that have been delayed by this year’s heavy snowfall, according to DNR Public Information Officer Joe Smillie.
Boosting Forest Improvement Work
Proponents behind 2SSB 5546 and HB 1711 hope to concentrate this work on the most at-risk land in the state. Prior to a Monday, April 10 House floor vote, State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) called 2SSB 5546 a “fine piece of legislation.”
“We’ve had in recent years some difficult fire seasons, and as we’ve been working in committee we’ve been coming up with some pretty good bills…to help DNR prioritize the parcels that need treatment now and have an annual plan, give us annual reports, and I think this will lead to better conditions in our forests.”
State Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) made similar remarks that day before the Senate unanimously approved HB 1711, which she co-sponsored before assuming her Senate seat.
“If you lived in the seven district in the last several years, you were home to two very large catastrophic fires in our districts, in fact some of the largest in state history,” she said. “And what you know is we have federal agencies and state agencies and our private folks that were impacted by that. What this bill does is it asks DNR to prioritize and conduct forest health treatments planning and prioritization which we feel is going to be very effective in taking the dollars that they have and putting them where it makes sense to create those potential fire breaks and to just get in and manage our forests.”
“While we will have fire in the future, hopefully will not be the catastrophic nature that we have here today,” she added.
DNR Prepares For Wildfire Season
The two bills complement other legislation approved this session that addresses fire suppression, another component of the state’s overall wildfire strategy that was the focus of a state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee report.
DNR is currently recruiting seasonal firefighters for this year’s season. Scheduled for May and June are three training sessions that will include roughly 1,000 firefighters from DNR, federal agencies, and local fire districts, according to Steve Harris. He is the Northeast Region Assistant Manager for Wildfire and Forest Practices.
Although last year’s wildfire season was less destructive compared to the previous two years, experts have warned of future megafires if forestland health is not addressed.
Chuck Hersey is DNR’s Acting Forest Health Program Manager. He told Lens that “the fundamental forest health issue that we have in Washington state is not so much the bugs or the diseases. They are really reacting to really suitable habitat conditions…that our forests are in.”
“The mix of species, as well as the overall density of species of trees out there, really creates a stressed forest condition that makes them much more susceptible,” he added. The bug-infected trees are a good sign of where DNR can start treatment, but “it’s really…a symptom of the underlying problem. Certainly, we would use our forest health annual insect disease survey to know where the current outbreaks.”
“There’s a buffet out there and they’re (bugs) responding accordingly,” he said.