Protecting “no man’s land”

Protecting “no man’s land”
The Wildland Fire Advisory Committee is looking at potential ways the state can address land in Washington state not protected by any fire jurisdiction.

In recent years, the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee has offered recommendations on how to improve initial responses to state wildfires. Now, the 14-member committee has begun the preliminary stage of examining potential recommendations to make by the end of the year on how to address “no man’s land,” areas not protected by any public agency or fire district. Possible recommendations are already included in the 2018 Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan, such as authorizing the formation of rangeland fire protection associations.

However, the advisory committee’s June 20 meeting revealed they are still waiting for complete data on how much and where that land is located. Annie Schmidt is the director of policy and partnerships for the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. During a presentation at the June 20 meeting, she described the information gathered on no man’s land so far as “a very limited picture (of) draft data.”

Last year, state lawmakers approved SHB 2562, which tasked the advisory committee with providing Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz recommendations by November 15 regarding no man’s land located outside the 417 fire departments and fire stations in Washington.

While the data provided so far has not yet been finalized, some general statistics have been established that highlight where they’re located, the risk these lands pose to adjacent properties and some of the potential solutions that might be best suited for them.

Of the estimated 382,000 acres of unprotected land, the majority (332,500) is privately owned, though 44,000 acres is public trust land managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The unprotected lands are mostly grassland (168,000) and shrub (140,000). All unprotected land is located within DNR’s Southeast Region.

There are 11 counties with unprotected land, with the most in Yakima at roughly 100,000 acres; Douglas County contains the second highest amount at roughly 65,000 acres. In both counties the unprotected lands are collected into two locations: the Silver Dollar area in Yakima County and the Palisades area in Douglas County.

While Schmidt further stressed the incompleteness of current data and indicated the total figures will likely go down, what is available indicates unprotected land is susceptible to both wildfires from nearby land as well as fire breakouts within. In 2016, no man’s land in Yakima was burned as part of the Range 12 Fire that affected 176,000 acres. In the last 20 years, more than 100,000 acres of unprotected land within that county burned.

In Benton County where there are 45,300 acres of unprotected land, wildfires since 1998 have burned 45,900 acres total.

The extent to which wildfires are originating on unprotected land and how much that has cost taxpayers is currently unknown because the data is incomplete. However, available information shows that since 2011 DNR has sent firefighting resources to 15 wildfires started on unprotected land. Of those wildfires, the associated costs are only available for five that burned 17,000 acres and cost $2.7 million.

What’s more, most of the unprotected land is located within watersheds described as “very high risk” by the Quantitative Wildfire Risk Assessment.

The advisory committee will eventually vote on recommendations. The draft list of potential recommendations and alternatives include:

  • Authorizing rangeland fire protection associations;
  • Giving unprotected landowners the option to choose an RFPA, create a new fire district or be annexed;
  • DNR assuming protection of unprotected land if no other choice made;
  • Expanding DNR protection responsibilities to cover entire state regardless of development level or cover type; and,
  • Giving DNR responsibility for protecting all wildlands in the state.

However, Schmidt added that some of the proposals are included in the list regardless of their financial or political viability.

The next advisory committee meeting is scheduled for July 18.

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