A bill directing the state Department of Natural Resources to conduct forest health projects that also benefit wildfire suppression efforts was approved by the state Senate on April 16. Lawmakers unanimously approved SSHB 1784, one of several bills introduced this session to aid forest health restoration efforts or wildfire strategies. The House had unanimously voted for the bill on Mar. 13.
DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan outlines a pathway to address millions of acres of state forestland susceptible to wildfires due to overly dense growth, heavy debris, disease and insects. It was released after state lawmakers last year approved legislation directing DNR to prioritize the most at-risk forestland and treat one million acres by 2033.
Under SSHB 1784 sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7), the state agency will look for opportunities to conduct treatment in areas where they can also serve as fires breaks that can either prevent wildfires from spreading or provide safe areas for firefighters to operate during a response.
Sen. Shelley Short (R-7), who cosponsored ESSB 5279, told colleagues on April 16 that “we know that there are instances where those who are fighting fire have said that we need these strategic areas throughout the forest that give them that needed fire break, that area where they can hopefully stop the fire so we’re not allowing fires to get maybe as large as they have been in previous years.”
Prior to its passage in the Senate, an amendment was added that allows DNR to issue outdoor burning permits within urban growth areas (UGA) for burns that “reduce the risk of wildfire.” That provision was included in ESSB 5279 sponsored by Sen. Kevin De Wege (D-24); the bill passed unanimously in the Senate on Mar. 12, but did not advance from the House Appropriations Committee.
“We are just not needlessly burning. We are taking your air quality into consideration and those that struggle with breathing disorders,” Short said.
DNR Wildfire Policy Advisor Loren Torgerson told Lens that the outdoor burning provision is one of many ways to prevent wildfires from starting. “One of the challenges that has come up is that people are finding it difficult to dispose of materials within the UGAs, and burning may be one of those options.”
Initially DNR expressed reservations with SSHB 1784 due to bill language Torgerson said was too broad and had unknown financial implications for the agency. “It would have included proactively building fire trails across public lands, across the landscapes.”
Although DNR hasn’t reviewed the final bill version approved by the Senate, Torgerson says DNR expects to conduct landscape analysis to identify potential fire break areas. Among the criteria are typical wind patterns and the tendency of wildfires to burn upslope rather than downhill.
“In many cases, that may be on a private land, and the owner might not be ready to take action immediately,” he said. “There’s a lot of variables that come into that.”