The “burn ‘em” strategy to improve Washington’s forests

The “burn ‘em” strategy to improve Washington’s forests
As this year’s wildfire season subsides, the state Department of Natural Resources hopes to get more state funding for forest health restoration that includes prescribed burning – a step that can help prevent incidents of heavy wildfire smoke such as the state experienced this month. Photo: State Department of Natural Resources

The apocalyptic-like smokescreen shrouding most of Washington earlier this month may ultimately make the best case on behalf of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for more state investment in forest health projects. It might also expand the publics’ tolerance of smoke created in the off-season by DNR’s prescribed burning projects. .

After several weeks of degraded air quality due to wildfire smoke, Washington’s Air Monitoring Network now reports most areas in the state have returned to healthy levels, with moderate air quality in the central Puget Sound region. Less than two weeks ago, only a handful of areas including Enumclaw, Issaquah and Yelm had healthy air quality levels.

The conditions and the location of large wildfires may perhaps aid DNR as it intends to pusue funding from the legislature to hire 30 new firefighters to help with forest health projects. A 2014 report found over two million acres of Eastern Washington forestland required some form of active management to improve wildfire resilience.

According to DNR, those areas in need of treatment are also the location of this season’s large wildfires.  In an Aug. 22 tweet, Commission of Public Lands Hilary Franz wrote: “we must restore the health of our forests to create fire-resilient landscapes and fund more full-time firefighters on the frontlines.”

Her plan to accomplish that is outlined in DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, the result of 2017 bipartisan state legislation following several record-setting wildfire seasons that has cost the state half a billion since 2010. According to the NW Interagency Coordination Center, this year’s wildfire season in Washington state burned 354,598 acres – most of it on grassland – and so far has cost $109 million.

Last year Franz also created the state Forest Health Advisory Committee composed of 22 members representing the timber industry, private forestland owners, forestry experts and state, federal and tribal governments. The committee is tasked with prioritizing forestland projects as part of an overall goal created by the legislature of treating one million acres by 2033.

A goal set several years ago by Results Washington aimed to increase the average annual forestland treatment from 145,000 to 200,000 acres by 2017; the latest report from 2016 found the state was more than 20,000 acres below the target.

Part of DNR’s 20-year plan also prioritizes watersheds that contribute to forest health, noting that “there are not enough resources to address the widespread forest health and wildfire risks present in eastern Washington all at once.” The objective is to restore 1.25 million acres of watersheds by 2037.

The plan also calls for further use of prescribed or controlled burns. While used under certain circumstances during wildfire season, controlled burns are also used to reduce fuel loads that contribute to wildfire intensity and protect the health of tree species such as Ponderosa Pine that are naturally fire-resilient.

Unlike agricultural and other industry-type burnings, DNR controlled burns are regulated by its Smoke Management Plan rather than state Department of Ecology’s air quality boards. However, the state agency’s efforts are still complicated by the fact that “Washington state has many people living in the wildland-urban interface” writes DNR Spokesperson Janet Pearce. “We know that certain populations are more impacted by smoke, including children, the elderly and those with cardiac or respiratory challenges. That’s why DNR requires public notification before prescribed burns and any potential smoke. DNR’s primary considerations are the impacts to human health and safety.”

In 2016, the legislature passed HB 2928, creating a DNR prescribed burn pilot project that completed numerous prescribed burnings that in part were meant to measure smoke levels for any possible recommended changes to the Smoke Management Plan, which has not been updated in 20 years.

DNR also provides burn permits on land it protects. Lands owners have to check with DNR on the day of the burn “to ensure weather and air quality conditions are still suitable,” Pearce said.

As Washington looks to ramp up its use of prescribed burns, it might examine lessons learned by its European counterparts also grappling with wildfires. A 2010 report by the European Forest Institute Research examined numerous case studies, including prescribed burning conducted in Västernorrland County, Sweden in the 2000s.

Among the report’s conclusions was that “there is a need for more personnel being involved with special assignments during a fire” such as an ignition specialist in addition to burn bosses. “This has substantially improved the quality of the burning and helped to reach the desired objectives more easily.”

The report noted that one important aspect of the Swedish project was convincing local non-government organizations and the public “that a large fire programme is not a waste of taxpayer´s money, but an investment in biological diversity. One important lesson learned was that it takes much convincing before a fire programme can be started – and once started it demands constant arguing for its continuation….it was not enough to provide some successful examples and prove that prescribed fire improves biological diversity.”

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