Healthy forests require prescribed burns and year-around management

By Kim Schrier, Special to The Times | Nov. 5, 2021 at 11:21 am | Updated Nov. 5, 2021 at 11:21 am

The Andrus Road Fire flares up on Monday, July 5, in Cheney. The wildfire in Central Washington burned several hundred acres and prompted a Level 3 evacuation alert. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review, File)

With the West’s wildfire season coming to an end, now is the time to examine our forest management strategies and ways to improve them as we grapple with climate change. This year brought another catastrophic wildfire season to Washington state. And wildfires are only going to get hotter and more destructive as climate change worsens. It is time to use all the tools we have to prevent uncontrolled wildfires and protect our forests, private property, and most important, lives. This strategy must include prescribed fire. 

Prescribed fire is the controlled use of fire by a team of experts that aims to improve ecosystem health. It is widely recognized as an important tool for mitigating the risk of catastrophic wildfires. Originally an Indigenous land management practice, prescribed fire has been used for thousands of years to improve forest health.

There is no longer a “no smoke” option. This is about choosing whether we experience smoke in a small, controlled, planned fashion that protects our forests in the offseason, or whether we choke on smoke for weeks each summer from catastrophic wildfires. Prescribed burns emit one-fifth of the smoke of wildfires and cut down on the dry wood that fuels catastrophic wildfires.

In Congress, as a member of the Agriculture Committee and the Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee, I have been actively working on ways to increase the number of acres treated with prescribed fire every year. Earlier this year, I introduced the National Prescribed Fire Act, a bipartisan bill that would invest significant resources in forest maintenance practices we know work — like prescribed burns. These burns are already happening, but at a pace far too slow to get the job done. My bill would accelerate the pace and scale. 

A recent report from the Washington Department of Natural Resources identified 3 million acres of forest lands in need of restoration. A significant percentage of those acres are in rural Central Washington, where weather conditions make wildfire especially dangerous. Local fire districts, counties and nonprofits are engaging in controlled burns and mechanical thinning as much as possible, but they face daunting resource barriers, and of course they need their federal neighbor, the Forest Service, to do its part.

Earlier this month Forest Service Chief Randy Moore joined an Agriculture Committee hearing on the 2021 wildfire season. I spoke with Chief Moore about the need to increase prescribed burns in Washington state, both on Forest Service land and land in the 8th district that abuts it. I also invited Chief Moore to the 8th District to see firsthand the wildfire mitigation work underway and how previously treated areas have withstood wildfires. 

I would like to thank all the firefighters who put themselves in the line of danger to protect lives and property. Wildfire season now starts earlier and ends later, heavily taxing our firefighters. Earlier this year President Joe Biden announced a pay increase for federal firefighters to $15 per hour. Pay is still unacceptably low, and they deserve better. We should ensure firefighters are compensated well for their incredible efforts.

My National Prescribed Fire Act also addresses this concern by creating year-round firefighter positions to respond to fires during the wildfire season and perform forest maintenance during the increasingly shorter offseason. We must be doing more to invest in controlled burns because it affects us all, no matter what part of the state you are in. We need action year-round to manage our beloved forests.

Kim Schrier is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 8th congressional district that includes Sammamish, Issaquah, Covington, Auburn and Chelan and Kittitas counties.