Bill proposes wildfire containment strategy

Bill proposes wildfire containment strategy
HB 1784 directs the state Department of Natural Resources to create wildfire fuel breaks on public lands, a move advocates say will provide fire crews with safe positions to combat the flames. Photo: TJ Martinell

A major challenge for state, federal and local fire crews responding to a wildfire can be locating a safe position to operate from, something that natural or constructed barriers to prevent the spread of fire, known as “fuel breaks”, can provide.

HB 1784 would provide more of those opportunities by directing the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to select ideal places for fuel breaks on public lands, then build and maintain them, along with expanding the state agency’s forest health treatment policy to include them.

Forestry industry members and local government officials were strongly in favor of the idea at a Feb. 13 public hearing of the House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources. Washington Forest Protection Association Director of Government Relations Jason Callahan called it an “important” bill that would effectively combine forest health restoration efforts with prevention measures that could either contain wildfires or allow fire fighters to protect areas otherwise indefensible.

“We’ve conceded too much ground, in my opinion, to ‘well, we’ll put it out when it hits the highway, we’ll put it out when it hits the river,’” Sponsor Deputy Minority Leader Joel Kretz (R-7) told committee members. “Well, if they’re 20, 30, 40 miles away there’s an awful lot of ground being burned in between that I don’t want to concede.”

He said the importance of fuel breaks was emphasized during the 2015 wildfire season when fire crews were able to utilize a spot that had been cleared out as part of a state, federal and private collaboration.  “It wasn’t cleared, it was just good forestry practice.”

Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart told the committee that the lack of safe, defensible areas for fire crews was also a problem in his jurisdiction during the 2015 wildfire season. “When we finally did get some crews in… they had to figure out ‘Where do I put a fire break? Where can we make a stand to fight this fire?’”

Cosponsor and committee chair Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) told colleagues “I’ve seen where forests have been treated to reduce fuel; it’s changed fire behavior, and I think this is an effort to encourage that tool.”

That view was shared by Matt Comisky, the Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council. He told the committee that “while fuel breaks will not completely address the risk or spread of these large fires, they can be effective if placed in the proper locations. Fuel breaks can be useful in providing fire crews anchor points to attack fires.”

A 2015 report put out by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) on wildfires in Washington included public comment from Jason Spadaro with the SDS Lumber Company that advocated for fuel breaks such as using Forest Service roads that are slated for decommissioning. “On DNR, we should be investing in forest roads as fuel breaks by increasing their width and accessibility. Minimizing the risks of fire spreading should take priority over other forest and habitat plans in order to reduce the intensity, severity and losses associated with wildfire and the costs to the State budget of fire suppression.”

However, DNR Wildfire Policy Advisor Loren Torgerson cautioned lawmakers at the Feb. 13 public hearing about the potential costs for creating and maintaining the fuel breaks. Although a fiscal note on the bill has been requested it has not yet been completed.

DNR is also worried about the impacts fuel breaks would have on state lands, though McCart said “we talk about sensitive trees, we talk about sensitive plants – all of that went out the window (in 2015). All we were concerned about was people’s safety.”

No further action is scheduled for HB 1784.

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