New wildfire strategies paying off

Breakthrough coming for forest health efforts?
A seasonal firefighter participates in a controlled burn near Yakima as part of a training academy. Washington state has already experienced the most wildfires this early in the season, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Photo: TJ Martinell

In recent years, Washington’s firefighting agencies have worked to improve the initial response to wildfires as part of an overall strategy toward reducing the severity of the state’s wildfire seasons. Already those efforts have paid off in this year’s season that so far has experienced 386 wildfires, the most fires this early in the year. Altogether, those wildfires have burned 10,814 acres.

At the same time, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) reports that it has managed to contain 20 small wildfires before they could grow large.

“The preparations that we’ve made and the energy into that is paying off in spades right now,” Fire and Emergency Response Operations Manager Aaron Schmidt said, adding that catching wildfires early is one of DNR’s “metrics of success. Are we keeping them small? Are we able to contain them?”

Prepositioning resources properly has also been a big priority for DNR. In addition to its regular staff, the agency has 550 seasonal firefighters, 120 engines, six fire bosses and nine helicopters.

The trick is knowing when and where to place them. Although most wildfires are human-caused, the ones started by lightning strikes are often the most severe because they start in remote locations and can burn for longer times without being noticed. Still, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is hosting wildfire town halls in Yakima, Chelan, and Spokane to educate residents about wildfire safety and preparedness.

Schmidt said their strategy for lightning-caused fires relies on predicting when strikes are likely to happen, then tracking where they’ve occurred.

“Anytime you have a lighting event, we’re pretty vigilant for the next week after that,” he said. “We have fire engine crews and helicopters spread out very strategically across the landscape, but if we know we’re going to get a lighting even tin Okanagan County we will move a bulk of resources (there) prior to the lightning event.

He added: “It’s a little bit of a crystal ball, but at the same time there’s a lot of science behind it.”

Another area of marked improvement has been interagency collaboration from several years of multiple DNR-hosted wildfire training academies.

“It’s just grown exponentially over the last four years,” Schmidt said. “They’re leaning together (and) forging relationships before there’s smoke in the air.”

The last of this year’s academies wraps up later this week in Rainier, with two prior academies in Deer Park and Naches. When completed, this year’s interagency academies will have trained 1,200 firefighters from local, state and federal agencies.

Kicking off the wildfire season was a 20-acre fire April 24 near Woodland. The flames were put out up by an aerial attack, though Schmidt said they typically use their nine helicopters and six fire bosses to keep fires contained until ground forces arrive.

However, it remains to be seen how the season will stack up to last year, when wildfires burned over 300,000 acres, the worst since 2015. The 2017 wildfire season was also unusually long, extending well beyond the summer months and prompting DNR in September to maintain a state-wide ban on all outdoor burning.

In their latest monthly outlook, the Predictive Services National Interagency Fire Center warns that in some parts of Washington state are 7-10 degrees above normal for this time of year, with below average precipitation. However, the outlook adds that “for most of the region, fire danger remains low for large, costly fires that are naturally ignited for the geographic area.”

Although the Washington snowpack was above normal for most basins, that is beginning to change. The state Department of Ecology reports that at the beginning of the month, only 25 of 72 snow-measuring sites had snow remaining.

Experts have warned that Washington could enter an era of “megafires” due to poor forest health. It’s a situation DNR and other stakeholders hope to change through a combination of improved firefighting strategies and forest restoration work. On the restoration side, DNR’s Forest Health Advisory Committee aims to carry out the Forest Health Plan, which aims to treat 1.25 million acres over the next 20 years. Earlier this year, DNR finished identifying areas they plan to evaluate for the initial round of forest health treatment.

Overseeing much of the effort to enhance firefighting tactics is the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, composed of over a dozen members and chaired by Gary Berndt, a retired firefighter and former assistant regional manager for DNR’s southeast region. DNR is also working on its Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan with community stakeholders, experts and representatives from local, state, federal and tribal governments.

The prolonged seasons is one of several ongoing challenges DNR faces, Schmidt said. “The seasonal model that we’ve used for college students who come and work in June and go back to school in September – that’s a very valuable asset, but it’s really no longer meeting the need.”

“We need folks for specifically year-round, but I would say April through December we’re routinely responding to fires. Again, we have a statute obligation to respond to wildfire even if the potential’s low and it’s in November and moist and cool out.”

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