“Burn bosses” would turn up the heat

HB 2733 would have the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set up a voluntary prescribed burn certification program to help train a new generation of “burn bosses” as part of a larger strategy to improve the state’s forestland health. Photo: Noble Research Institute

It’s an idea befitting a scene in a sequel to Planes: Fire & Rescue – a program to train prescribed burn project managers, a.k.a: “burn bosses” – equipping the next generation with the tools to protect people, nature and property.

Since the 2014-15 wildfire seasons there has been a renewed emphasis on the use of prescribed burns to improve forest health and reduce wildfire severity. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) 20-year forest health plan calls for increased use of this practice, and in 2016 completed a prescribed burn pilot program in different areas throughout the state.

Prescribed burning is employed by private small landowners as part of their forest management strategy. However, certification is required to become a prescribed burn project manager, and private land owners say most of them are nearing retirement. HB 2733 would help train a new generation of these burn bosses by creating a voluntary prescribed burn manager certification program.

The bipartisan proposal is sponsored by Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20) and backed by four Democrats. The bill received a “do pass” recommendation February 1 following a January 25 public hearing in which stakeholders spoke of the importance for training up-and-coming foresters.

Washington Farm Forestry Association Executive Director Elaine Oneil said that the number of industry members knowledgeable about prescribed burns are dwindling. “There are some that actively burn, but they’re reporting that the combination of increasing liability, increasing regulatory requirements and reduced burn windows…are making it so that they can no longer use this valuable tool. We’re also losing an institutional memory.

“With them (retiring) goes that institutional memory of how to effectively use fire as opposed to always having to fight it,” she added. “We don’t think it (HB 2733) goes far enough.”

On top of managing the state’s wildfire response, DNR also implements the Smoke Management Plan regulating burns on DNR-protected lands, but also must meet the state Clean Air Act. It also issues prescribed burn permits to private landowners.

A consulting forester, Orcutt told panel members: “I’ve had the chance to actually do some prescription burning and understand the complexities of it. You don’t just go out and light a match and have a successful prescribed burn. This is not something anybody can go out and do. What this bill does is basically sets up a program to make sure we have those individuals in our states to go out and do it.

“This is the start of doing something about it and actually getting some work done on the ground.”

The effectiveness of prescribed burns was articulated during last year’s session by forestry experts, who argued that an overly-aggressive wildfire suppression policy and an abrupt end to logging in forestland gave rise to unhealthy, small-diameter trees with heavy fuel loads on the ground. Conservationists have also relied on it to restore lands.

At the January 25 public hearing, Oneil said that frequent, controlled fires help mitigate insect and disease outbreaks. A 2015 report found that 2.5 million acres of Eastern Washington forestland exist, though DNR officials say that number may be even higher.

“Prescribed burning is not just a convenience. It’s an imperative,” Oneil said.

Also in favor of the program is Russ Hobbs, a retired fire chief from Kittitas County. He told lawmakers that “fire service would benefit from this bill enormously. For us, this is an exciting opportunity … to get first-hand experience.”

At the same public hearing, committee members also examined HB 2561, which calls for the state Wildland Advisory Committee to reassess the effectiveness of certain state agencies and programs related to wildfire suppression. Prime sponsor Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) told panel members that “I’ve learned in the flying business…what worked in 1980 wasn’t working in 1990 or in 2000, because things change.”

The same applies to the state’s fire mobilization plan, the fire marshal and the Firewise community program, he said, and that the conversation topic should be on the table.

HB 2561 also received a “do pass” recommendation at the committee’s February 1 meeting.


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