Is increased DNR wildfire funding paying off?

Is increased DNR wildfire funding paying off?
This year’s wildfire season could be one of the mildest in the past decade, possibly due in part to increased funding for state Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire suppression efforts. Photo: freepik.com

This year’s wildfire season is on track to be one of the mildest in decades, though state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials say the situation could still change due to ongoing drought conditions. So far, only 15,414 acres have burned, with 14,425 on DNR protected land; in comparison, 428,834 acres burned in 2018 and 235,348 acres in 2017.

There are a variety of potential factors that may have influenced this year’s outcome so far, including temperature, humidity, lightning strikes, recent precipitation, and wind speeds. However, DNR officials attribute some of the success to enhanced initial attacks and greater fire suppression resources compared to recent years.

“Proving what didn’t happen is always a problem,” DNR Wildfire Division Manager Chuck Turley said. “We can speculate as to why that might be.”

However, Turley and other DNR officials note that while the number of acres burned has been significantly reduced, the number of actual wildfires remains consistent with the 10-year average.

“We’re not really seeing a decline in the number of fires,” DNR Spokesperson Thomas Kyle Milward said. “We’re actually on track to replicate and perhaps exceed last year’s number for fires. What we are experiencing is fewer acres burned.”

Kyle-Milward added that the state agency has taken a “more aggressive approach to wildfire fighting this year. DNR has adopted a policy of attempting to combat these fires immediately.”

The increasingly aggressive initial attacks through greater use of aerial units is in part to avoid large number of personnel in an area to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, Turley said since 2015 they’ve spread their helicopter fleet throughout the state rather than operating them all out of Ellensburg. DNR now has aircraft staged in Omak, Chewelah, Deer Park, Malaga and Dallesport, in addition to locations in Skagit and Clark counties.

Last year the state legislature fully funded a $55 million funding request from Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz that allowed the agency to make 30 seasonal firefighter position full time for forest health work; before that, DNR had 43 full-time firefighters. State funding also enabled DNR to add two new helicopters to its fleet, for a total of nine.

Turley said increased wildfire suppression funding is “a part of the answer” to why the year has been mild so far, adding: “I don’t believe it’s all of the answer. Lightning is a really good example. Some years…come with a lot of rain, some years no rain.” He added that DNR has also improved its lightning strike forecasting abilities, allowing resources to be prepositioned in anticipation of wildfires.

Furthermore, one year’s season can bear little resemblance to the next; the 2005 wildfire season burned 28,698 acres, while the 2006 season saw 303,289 acres burned. Precipitation in late July and early August can also moisten light fuels and prevent large wildfires from starting.

Kyle-Milward said weather conditions could still alter the outcome of the season. “By no means do we feel we’re out of the woods yet.”

In addition to lower fire suppression costs, the milder season will allow greater opportunity for the state agency to carry out forest health restoration work as part of its 20-year Forest Health Plan released in 2017. Turley previously told Lens the importance of “critical mass treatment” in order for the work to be effective. There are currently several restoration projects planned over the next year in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest covering 400,000 acres.

Turley said a shorter wildfire season “can allow more of a shift on those resources to the forest health projects. The forest health work we’re trying to do, we believe, will have a long-term impact on wildfire. Forest health work in the long-term…making fires fewer in number and smaller in size.”

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