Sometimes To Prevent Fires, You Have To Set Fires: Lawmakers Mull DNR Reforms

Sometimes To Prevent Fires, You Have To Set Fires: Lawmakers Mull DNR Reforms
The Okanagan Complex Fire in Omak, Wash. in August, 2015 was started by lightning. Photo: USFS.

After two years of record-setting wildfires and pending lawsuits against the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for alleged negligence, state lawmakers are looking to take the reins. DNR has firefighting and regulatory authority over 13 million acres of state and private forests, while overseeing several million acres of Forest Service land. Firefighting on federal land is handled jointly.

SB 6657 seeks to change DNR wildfire prevention practices by DNR to address immediate and long-term problems. One of the co-sponsors, Majority Caucus Chair Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (R-12), testified about the bill at a hearing Tuesday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The bipartisan omnibus bill also has Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-24) and Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44) as co-sponsors.

Lack Of Confidence In DNR Leadership

The reform bill could be seen as a lack of confidence in DNR leadership to implement changes on its own. In an email, Parlette told Lens she held a hearing over the wildfire problem in 2013 after a particularly bad wildfire the year prior, but “nothing seemed to change.”

One of the bills rolled into SB 6657 blames “past forestland management practices” as the primary cause of the recent wildfires, along with a century of “past fire suppression practices.”

The U.S. Forest Service has pushed for more prescribed fires in the state to reduce forest density, but Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, the head of DNR, has previously expressed reluctance to do because of backlash from communities affected by the smoke. He’s also concerned the fires might get out of control.

Multi-Pronged Reform Package

SB 6657 would increase joint state and local firefighter training and provide additional aerial attack capabilities. It would also have DNR create by next year’s end a 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan to treat 2.7 million acres in Eastern Washington considered “in poor forest health,” and update their smoke management plan for the first time since 1998.

The measure would be funded from a $10.3 million slice of the $173 million the Senate proposes to shift from the state’s General Fund to the Disaster Response Account for last summer’s firefighting costs and future prevention.

Prevention Takes Time

However, don’t expect reforms to fix the major underlying problem anytime soon, said State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13). “Prevention is a long-term issue,” he said.

The most immediate challenge is forest density. Too many small trees growing too close to one another provide the fuel that has made recent wildfires so destructive.

Fire As A ‘Regular Management Tool’

One way to prevent future overgrowth is through prescribed burns, which are regulated by DNR’s smoke management plan. Lawmakers like Parlette are pushing for that on DNR-managed land. They see the controlled burns as central to a new long-term prevention strategy.

Jerry Franklin, an Ecosystems Analysis professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said that the state needs to see fire itself as a “regular management tool” for the forests.

It’s an approach Franklin advocated in a 2015 commentary and said is employed more frequently in southeastern states. In addition, more natural fires should be allowed to burn rather than get put out.

UW Expert: Too Many Dry-Lands Forests Are ‘Intensely Overgrown’

“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.” The advantage to prescribed fires rather than controlling natural ones, Franklin said, is that they can be timed for when the weather is favorable.

“If you use prescribed fire, you get it with conditions that you can control it,” he said. “If you get one like last summer you’re smoked out for days and weeks on end.” However, the forests are so dense right now, he added, that prescribed burns can’t always be used.

In those cases, mechanical thinning is the way to go, said Washington Forest Protection Association Executive Director Mark Doumit. When fires occur at the ground level, they pass through the forests rather than consume them.

Forestry Industry Can Clear Out Unhealthy Growth That Fuels Fires

State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) thinks opening up more forest to the logging industry could be an effective solution. It would help remove unhealthy growth and clear out fuel on the forest floor that has made wildfires so destructive.

On top of that, Dent added, the boost to the logging industry would generate tax revenue while boosting the local economy, particularly in counties plagued by unemployment.

“When you make the forest healthy it’s better for everybody,” he said. “There has been a big movement to leave nature as it is, but we’ve already messed a lot of it up. Some of this we caused, so we have to go in and clean it up.”

It might also take the burden off taxpayers. From 2010 through 2014, DNR spent approximately $200 million from the operating budget on fire suppression.

DNR Has Its Own Concerns

Meanwhile, DNR has complained inadequate state and federal funding are inhibiting their firefighting abilities. Testifying in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in January, Goldmark said DNR doesn’t have the resources to effectively combat the wildfires.

That would seem to make cooperation between DNR and local communities an even greater priority. But lawmakers representing communities affected by the wildfires last year complained that DNR failed to effectively utilize local resources and volunteers.

Even though the department sought feedback from the communities, the legislature responded by passing several bills including one that removes certain liabilities for locals trying to combat fires on state land. Under House Bill 2093 legislators created a Fire Advisory Committee and required DNR to coordinate with locals qualified to fight fires.

Perceived problems with DNR performance in the field also fueled accusations of mismanagement during the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire, the largest wildfire to date in state history. In a lawsuit filed last November, three Okanogan County residents claim losses from alleged DNR negligence in fighting the smaller Golden Hike Fire in Okanogan County which merged with several other nearby wildfires to create the massive Carlton Complex Fire.

The pending lawsuit also alleged that DNR personnel “abandoned fire lines” in the evening and didn’t return until the morning, and that the agency “prevented local volunteers and residents from helping neighbors battle the fire.” Another such claim involving 200 people is still awaiting a court date.

Other DNR management issues have surfaced, as well. A 2015 state audit found that the department failed to follow its own policy when it accidentally overpaid a contractor by nearly $9,000 to combat the colossal 2014 fire, though DNR says the mistake was made under “dire circumstances.” Another audit found DNR paid out $1.8 million to a private landowner for firefighting on his property without proper documentation. The manager involved in that reimbursement was later demoted.

MORE: Foresters Like Proposed Wildfire Reforms, Lens, 3/4/16.


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