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State taking positive steps to stem wildfires

The long-range forecast for the Northwest is wet springs, followed by hot, dry summers. It’s a recipe for the widespread wildfires we’ve recently endured. The Department of Natural Resources can’t change climate patterns, but it can try to improve the health of forests on state lands to make them more fire resistant.

Last week, DNR released a 20-year plan aimed at 1.25 million acres in Eastern Washington.

“Improving the health of our forests will reduce risk to lives, communities, livelihoods, water supplies and essential forest ecosystems,” said Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.

The plan was the work of 56 people from 33 agencies and organizations, according to the Associated Press. Tribes, conservation groups, state agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Vaagen Brothers Lumber in Stevens County were among the representatives that helped put the plan together.

The report points to past management practices that have resulted in overstocked forests with closely spaced trees. Summer droughts have made them more susceptible to ravenous bark beetles and other insects. Spokane smashed a century-old record, going 80 days without rain last summer.

DNR responded to 766 fires in 2016 and about that many this year. In 2015, it responded to 953 fires. It was after that fire season that the Legislature passed a bill calling for a long-range plan. It passed another bill last session setting a goal of 1 million acres for active treatment by 2033.

The DNR plan points to prescribed burns, thinning and the steady harvesting of small-diameter trees to help restore forest health.

According to the report, “The State of Oregon conducted a cost benefit analysis and found that for every $1 million spent on forest restoration there is $5.7 million generated in economic returns, and that for every $1 invested in restoration the state saves $1.45 in suppression.”

So it’s good for the economy, especially in struggling rural areas, and for the state’s bottom line.

One thing the state cannot control is how federal forests are managed. Fires there spread to state lands. The U.S. Forest Service has had to tap its fire prevention accounts to battle the increasing incidence of wildfires. This practice of “fire borrowing” means the feds cannot address long-range forest health.

Northwest congressional representatives have called for smarter budgeting by establishing a separate account for fighting wildfires. This would protect the funds needed for much-needed preventive measures.

We can only hope that Congress does the right thing, but it’s encouraging to see that the state is making a concerted effort to improve its practices and prioritize wildfire prevention.


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