The 2020 wildfire season has quickly escalated from one of the mildest in the past decade to one of the most severe, with more than 800,000 acres consumed as the result of 1,439 wildfires. In addition fire suppression costs, unhealthy air quality from smoke, destruction of property, and threats to public safety, wildfires can also undermine efforts by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and other land managers in Washington to conduct forest health improvements that are scheduled for the fall and spring.
However, so far DNR says that despite the large wildfires none of its projects scheduled for later this year have been impacted—though other unhealthy forestland intended for treatment has been affected.
There are approximately 2.7 million acres of unhealthy forestland in Washington state. Three years ago DNR released its 20-year Forest Health Plan that prioritizes forestland for treatment based on watersheds. Right now, there are 33 existing planning areas in Central and Eastern Washington.
One of the largest wildfires in the state is the Cold Springs Fire in the Okanogan National Forest, with 188,000 acres burned; the fire is 60 percent contained.
DNR Forest Health Planning Assistant Division Manager Jennifer Watkins wrote in an email that “so far we are not seeing major changes to the forest health projects in a planning phase through implementation of our plan at this time.” A U.S. Forest Service spokesperson wrote in an email that “it’s too soon to know the extent of damage and what this might mean for planned projects.”
Yet, Watkins added that the wildfires have affected forestland that will eventually require treatment once the wildfire season ends. “That may shift our focus a bit to address time sensitive needs of the landscape as a whole. Also, the fire season is still underway, so we are paying close attention to fire behavior.”
Commenting on the wildfire season, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said in a statement that “it’s not just one year; it’s year after year – and the time to take action at the pace and scale of wildfire is here, right now. We can and must make proactive investments now to strengthen our wildfire response and restore the health of our forests so that this doesn’t happen again. We must invest in our communities ripped apart by fire and help rebuild them with understanding, care and resources.”
The extent to which a wildfire affects planned treatment in unhealthy forestland depends on its severity. Watkins notes that it can “benefit forest health and resiliency goals and sometimes in ways that detract.” One form of active forest management is controlled burns that reduce forest floor fuel levels that allow flames to grow large enough to engulf the top of trees and lead to crowning.
University of Washington Ecosystems Analysis professor Jerry Franklin told Lens that “I don’t think there’s any benefit” to a severe wildfire. It means you have to start all over again. Then again, if a fire is of more moderate character… (and) it leaves behind some significant component of green trees to provide you with a better starting point, you’ve got some structure there to work with.”
He added: “That’s why it’s so good to get into the forests that are still green and restore a more fire-resistant condition while you’ve still got the bigger trees to do it with.”
Like other forestry experts, Franklin attributes the state’s severe wildfire seasons to a century of mismanaged forests in which natural fires previously allowed to clear forest floors were instead suppressed; when wildfires did break out, foresters replanted affected areas in a way that led to overly dense tree stands.
“It was a very stable forest, because it was burning every five, six or seven years,” he said. “You never got big fuel accumulations. It’s not just resilient, it’s resistant to fire. We changed all that.”
Franklin added that “recreating that kind of fire-resistant forest is a real challenge, but it probably means frequent use of prescribed fire.”
Following the 2015 wildfire season there’s been a renewed push for greater flexibility for prescribed burns. Last year, DNR updated its smoke management plan after the state legislature provided funding in 2016. The legislature also approved funding for DNR to conduct a prescribed burn pilot program between the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, which involved a total of 3,000 acres at 13 locations.
One of the difficulties DNR has faced with the issue are concerns over air quality due to wildfire smoke. However, Franklin said that Washingtonians don’t have much of a choice. “You will have to deal with fire. You either manage it, or, as we did for 100 years, you can suppress it. Ultimately it will burn. You will not be able to stop it. When you have forests and you have fire, you’re going to have smoke. You can either have it when you are in control of it, or get it just the way we’re getting it right now.”