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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Washington

State agency wants to increase prescribed burns for healthier forests

UPDATED: Mon., Dec. 24, 2018

Smoke from an early October burn billows out from a ridge above Roslyn. The prescribed fire is intended to help create a more defensible space. (Nikolaj Lasbo / The Nature Conservancy)
Smoke from an early October burn billows out from a ridge above Roslyn. The prescribed fire is intended to help create a more defensible space. (Nikolaj Lasbo / The Nature Conservancy)
By Luke Thompson Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA, Wash. – The state of Washington wants to ramp up prescribed fire to aid forest restoration efforts, marking a significant departure from recent decades.

State laws and regulations strictly limit prescribed fire, and the Department of Natural Resources had virtually stopped using it until the election of Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz in November 2016.

Franz said the state saw 63,000 acres burned by various agencies in 2017 and she hopes to help Washington expand efforts by building resources and removing barriers for other organizations.

“We will be able to rapidly expedite and increase the amount of prescribed fires,” Franz said.

A survey report released Tuesday by the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils revealed prescribed burning increased in the West Region, which includes all states to the north and west of New Mexico and Kansas. That region accounts for 3.3 million acres of land that underwent prescribed burning, or 29 percent of the total across the country. More than 1 million of the total was in Kansas alone.

The coalition’s early reports for 2018 show Washington has nearly caught up to Oregon, which has typically been well ahead of its northern neighbor. The two states burned nearly the same amount of acres for forestry and agricultural purposes this year, according to the coalition’s chair, Mark Melvin.

Challenges out of Franz’s control – notably weather and topography – make it inconceivable for Washington to ever catch up to warmer, flatter central and southeast states that began widespread use of prescribed fires many years ago. But Washington Prescribed Fire Council chairman Reese Lolley, who works for The Nature Conservancy, believes the state could double or triple the annual amount of acres burned within a decade. The council brings together representatives from state and federal agencies, nonprofits, private industry, tribes and universities.

Earlier this month, the Department of Natural Resources issued a report from a pilot burning project approved by the Legislature in spring 2016. It offered a host of recommendations, including changes to regulations, improving collaboration and community outreach, and increasing funding and training for prescribed fires.

Fire limitations

Washington’s record-breaking fire seasons of 2014 and 2015 served as a harrowing call to action for many in state government.

In Washington state, DNR and the WDFW both manage land and are involved in forest management. The picture also includes the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, tribes, and private landowners such as The Nature Conservancy.

Although Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Dale Swedburg, Lolley and others initiated the first statewide prescribed fire council in 2012, the issue got little attention from legislators in Olympia.

Lolley said lawmakers essentially asked the Department of Natural Resources to stop using prescribed fire in the 1980s, so all knowledge and resources disappeared from the agency. At that point, the commonly held belief was all fire was bad. Even when research showed otherwise, it has taken time to change regulations and momentum.

“In (’14-’15) there was a real recognition from the Legislature and I think the general public that we really needed to engage all the different tools to create both safer communities and a more resilient forest,” said Lolley, the prescribed fire council’s chair for the past five years.

More than 60 bills were proposed from the Legislature in 2015 to address the wildfire issues. Only one – House Bill 2928 – passed, but it allocated $800,000 for a pilot burning project, encouraging the Forest Service as well as the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department to conduct more prescribed burns. Still, Lolley said the DNR remained out of the picture until Franz was elected in November 2016.

According to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Council’s report, the number of acres burned by prescribed fire in Washington went down by more than 10 percent in 2017 compared to the average from 2011 and 2014. The decline could be related to weather conditions, access to trained staff and individual landowner needs, said DNR communications manager Stevie Mathieu.

Agencies with more resources battled strict smoke management regulations, which prevented Wildlife Department prescribed fire manager Matt Eberlein from burning more than 7 or 8 acres of what was scheduled to be a much larger burn at Oak Creek, 14 miles west of Naches, this fall. He said the department aims for 2,000-3,000 acres annually, but they fell far short of that mark this year in part due to the state’s air quality regulations and smoke restrictions.

“There’s some other regulations that I’m hoping DNR will start to re-evaluate,” Eberlein said. “The only part is, some of us, this is what we do for a living and we’re already doing it. DNR hasn’t got there yet.”

Forest Service

Another player is the federal government. Dana Skelly of the U.S. Forest Service oversees prescribed fire in Washington and Oregon, which have similar geography and population distribution on each side of the Cascades. Most burning occurs on the drier East Side, where open spaces lessen the effects of additional smoke.

Two years ago, Oregon hired a field coordinator, which Skelly said is a key reason it’s easier to communicate with regulatory officials there compared to Washington.

The Forest Service also can do more in Oregon simply because it manages close to 17 million acres, compared to just 10 million in Washington, public affairs officer for fire communications Traci Weaver said.

Washington is one of 12 states where fire managers must pay for a prescribed burn permit and one of 27 states that doesn’t offer prescribed burn manager certification courses, according to the coalition’s report.

When it comes to restoring forests, the DNR’s guidelines encourage alternatives to fire such as thinning and Skelly praised many of the state’s efforts. She said the department has proven itself to be much more progressive than Oregon’s Department of Forestry thanks to collaborative projects from a variety of groups and innovative programs to help communities prepare for wildfire.

Turning up the heat

The state’s 20-year plan to treat 1.25 million acres of forests in Eastern Washington by 2037 won’t be achieved without a dramatic shift toward controlled, low-intensity fires.

Franz has seen the benefits of fire from many years spent working with environmental groups throughout the state. She also added some critical expertise to her staff in June, when George Geissler from the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture became Washington’s first state forester and supervisor of wildfire operations.

Mathieu said DNR plans to hire a new prescribed fire manager, who would take on a role similar to Oregon’s field coordinator. Revisions to the Smoke Management Plan could go into effect as soon as 2020, and Franz asked Geissler and others to work with lawmakers to find solutions.

“I think the Legislature is very responsive,” Franz said. “I know there’s actually going to be a hearing during committee day to bring the Legislature together, along with our agency, to begin to address some of these barriers.”

The recent report from the pilot project calls for allowing fires on weekends after Labor Day, increasing the tonnage amount allowed for burning without a permit, and a new 24-hour burn permit rather than the current system that requires managers to get approval the day of a burn. The changes would apply to everyone.

Officials will continue to study other ways to ease restrictions, and Franz noted it’s important to become “a little more nimble.”

That would be a big boost for the Forest Service and other agencies that already possess prescribed fire resources, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and WDFW.

Eberlein said he already has a full crew of nine people up north and expects to have a full crew of six to nine people in place for southern Washington by March.

Another critical step toward adding resources would be approval of the DNR’s $55 million budget request, which Gov. Jay Inslee included in his biennial budget proposal released earlier this month. It would provide funding for more specialized training and five more full-time firefighters who could focus on controlled burns and other preventative measures when not fighting the state’s dangerous wildfires.

Many at-risk communities such as Cle Elum and Roslyn have already embraced fire as a tool to improve forest health. But for many others, the DNR and the Forest Service want to help create an understanding of why some fire is necessary.

“We’ve gotten used to being able to put fires out and so we’ve had the illusion of control for a very long time,” Skelly said, contrasting fire with other natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes that are known hazards in other regions. “If you learn to think of it that way, as a disturbance that’s part of where we live, then I think that smoke from prescribed burning goes into that context, that sense of place.”

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