The month of August has begun with an escalation of Washington’s wildfire season. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and tribal resources have been sent to contain the Williams Flat Fire located on the Colville Indian Reservation in northeastern Washington. The fire started on Aug. 2 due to a lightning strike, has already consumed 18,000 acres and is only 25 percent contained.
Aside from hot temperatures reaching 100 degrees, one of the challenges for the 766 fire personnel sent to suppress the fire is the steep terrain making it difficult to access the adjacent area and dig containment lines. Spokesperson Bobbi Cussins added “getting containment is really challenging. It’s hard to get bodies (there), let alone anything.”
The wildfire is around areas of eastern Washington identified in a 2014 DNR report as being in need of forest health restoration; the report also noted that the area suffered significant tree mortality caused by invasive insects and disease. The poor health of these forestlands is one of several factors that contribute to more severe wildfires.
A July 31 wildfire seminar series put on by the University of Washington and PEMCO discussed ways to reverse ongoing wildfire trends but also to better protect communities in danger. Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said that one of those trends is an extended wildfire season, starting as early as April and ending in September. She also noted the rise in wildfires on the westside, which is predicted to have a higher at-risk level than the eastside this month and in September.
One of the strategies has been to enhance initial responses to wildfires, Franz said. “We are being more up front in trying to keep them (wildfires) small, because the rate and pace and scale of fires in every corner of this state has grown so much that if we let any one of them get too big, we’re usually playing whack-a-mole (and) we’ve got another fire…now because we only have a very limited amount of resources.”
At the same time, DNR is also working to restore forestland suffering not only from insects and disease, but also from overgrowth and heavy fuel loads. The state agency’s 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan envisions treating 1.25 million acres by 2037. One of the methods to do so is prescribed burns; DNR is currently working on updates to its Smoke Management Plan regarding the use of prescribed burns – a plan that hasn’t been updated since 1998.
Although she said prescribed fire is “critical,” Franz added that “we have to bring in the fire at the right time and under the right conditions. Historically you don’t have as much fuel load there, so fires would weed out the weak and allow the stronger, healthier trees to grow stronger and healthier, but when we have all the woody debris we’ve got dead dying disease trees an enormous patches of it in our forests, east and west.”
Similar remarks were made by panel member and UW Wildland Fire Sciences Research Associate Professor Ernesto Alvarado. He noted that although wildfires historically kept forests healthy, the poor conditions today make it difficult to use fire in a similar manner.
“We haven’t (had) fire for so long, that we need to have a whole array of options,” he said.
UW Forest Ecology Professor Dr. Dave Peterson also cited “sociological and economic issues” that restrict the use of prescribed burns. “Nobody wants smoke in their backyard, and people keep moving out more and more into wild land areas. When you do a prescribed burn now, it’s going to affect somebody almost everywhere across the landscape.”