State’s Working Forests Need Protection

State's Working Forests Need Protection
Soldiers in the Washington Army National Guard, 81st Armored Brigade Combat Team train to fight wildfires. Their instructors are personnel from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. This was in Yakima in July 2014. This year, Washington guardsmen and women are again being trained in Yakima to help combat wildfires. Photo: Kevin Abel/BLM.

One priority for private forest landowners is improved communications with the state and closer teamwork across all jurisdictions to control the growing severity of the state’s wildfire seasons. Their concerns are among those being reviewed by the Wildland Fire Advisory Committee set up by the state legislature last year. The Committee is working on recommendations to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Forestry Industry Must Shepherd Its Resources

For the forestry industry and private forest landowners, better initial responses to wildfire on state and federal lands creates less risk of those fires spreading onto their property and damaging their trees. There’s also less risk to their land if neighboring state- and federally-managed forests are made more fire resilient.

Joint Effort On Initial Attack Is Key

Organizations like the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA) hope to see the state adopt a more aggressive initial response to wildfires. The trade association represents 50 private forest landowners in the state.

But it’s not just the state’s role that’s key, stressed Debora Munguia, WFPA’s Director of Government Relations. She said, “This needs to be a multifaceted effort with the state, the federal government, tribes, counties, local fire districts, private landowners. And the goal is to have better initial attack that includes enhanced communication but also healthier forests.”

Healthier Forests Are More Closely Tended

Munguia said better forest health means dealing with overcrowding of trees, lack of forest management, and the need for prescriptive burning. Like any garden, forests must be tended, they can’t be neglected, and that includes non-working forests, according to Munguia. Once fires start in under-managed forests they can accelerate very quickly, because of dead and dying trees and high winds. “It’s a deadly combination,” she said.

A December 2015 report issued by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) found that approximately 2.7 million acres of the 10 million acres of forestland in eastern Washington are at high risk from wildfire, insects and other hazards.

Industry, Communities, Agriculture All Affected

Industry impacts are important, Munguia added, but it’s crucial to remember there are homeowners who lost everything, and who were literally “sleeping in tents” after wildfires last year and the one before. Agriculture was also seriously affected, she said. “Wildfire impacts are devastating to a lot of people.”

Private industrial landowners keep their forests healthy and they also provide their own resources for firefighter training, fire patrols, and have their own fire equipment at the ready, said Munguia. They also pay the state about $10 million per year for forest fire prevention assessments, and pay into a landowners’ contingency fund which reimburses the state for firefighting costs, if a blaze is caused by landowner operations.

Economic Impact Is Considerable

The continuing planning and precautions underlie not only the widespread impacts of wildfires, but also the economic stakes. According to a fact sheet from the Working Forests Action Network, the forestry industry in Washington supports $4.9 billion in wages annually and 105,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs in the state. More than 16,600 of those jobs are in King County. Forestry is the third largest manufacturing industry in Washington. Nearly half of the state’s 22.9 million acres of forestlands are working forests.

The committee’s work is timely because after a record $178 million in state wildfire-fighting costs last year and $100 million in 2014, two wildfires have already broken out in Western Washington this year. They were near Oso and Gold Bar, in May. A third blaze arose in Central Washington near the city of George on May 29 after a recreational fire got out of control. It burned 2,025 acres before it was fully contained the next day.

The Portland-based Northwest Geographic Area Coordination Center had predicted a normal fire season.

Initial Response To Wildfires Is Critical

The state committee’s report to outgoing Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark this October will focus primarily on steps that can be taken now to enhance initial response to wildfires rather than wildfire prevention methods.

That’s according to Committee Chair Gary Berndt. Berndt is retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region.

Making Use Of Volunteers, Guardsmen

One recommendation might be to improve DNR’s low seasonal firefighter retention rate, resulting in better trained and certified personnel.

DNR is already trying to improve the use of available volunteers in the state. One way is getting more interested residents to get properly certified to fight wildfires. Local fire districts can accept volunteer firefighters but DNR does not. A lack of training and certification forced 1,000 volunteers to sit idle during last year’s wildfire season.

DNR hires seasonal firefighters and conducts training prior to wildfire season. Right now they’re conducting wildfire training academies in Yakima along with 200 National Guardsmen.

However, for years the department has suffered from a low seasonal firefighter retention rate, according to Berndt. This means DNR has to train new seasonal firefighters each year, rather than gradually develop an experienced firefighting force. His comments came at a meeting of the committee June 1, at the Suncadia resort community near Roslyn.

It wasn’t as much of a problem when training was expected to end by July. But with wildfire seasons starting earlier, July is too late now to finish wildfire training, said DNR Division Manager Bob Johnson. Johnson is also a member of the advisory committee.

Wildfire Equipment Certification For Rural District Personnel

Committee members like Jim DeTro advocate rural fire districts train their personnel so they’re more certified to use wildfire suppression equipment like dozers. DeTro is the chair of the Okanogan County Board of Commissioners.

Separate certification is needed to be a dozer driver and a dozer boss, someone who directs the driver while they’re operating the vehicle. More certified dozer bosses could mean more use of existing equipment, instead of letting it sit due to a lack of such personnel.

Price Tag Required On Recommendations

The state’s price tag for all this is unclear. In addition to figuring out recommendations to DNR, the advisory committee also faces the challenge of determining what the recommendations will cost the state and how to fund their implementation. Meeting 2015’s wildfire-fighting costs required tapping in to the state’s rainy day fund.

Reporting and writing by TJ Martinell and Matt Rosenberg.


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