In Our View: Forest management key to preventing fires

Wildfires are an unavoidable fact of life in the western United States. But action at the state and federal levels can help protect lives and property.

The Columbian | Published: January 27, 2022, 6:03am

Wildfires are an unavoidable fact of life in the western United States. But action at the state and federal levels can help protect lives and property.

As the Associated Press recently reported, the Biden administration “will significantly expand efforts to stave off catastrophic wildfires that have torched areas of the U.S. West by more aggressively thinning forests around ‘hot spots’ where nature and neighborhoods collide.” Other mitigation strategies are in the works, combining with ongoing efforts from the state Department of Natural Resources.

As Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz wrote recently for The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review: “With record rain and snow across Washington, it may not seem like the threat of wildfire should be front of mind. But we are about as far removed from the last fire season as we are close to the start of the next one – and if last season was any indicator, it can never be too early to prepare. Wildfire impacts every corner of the Evergreen State.”

Last year, more than 670,000 acres burned in Washington. That is less than the 1.1 million acres that burned in 2015 or the 800,000 acres from 2020, but it reflects an annual threat that is receiving much-warranted attention.

The 2021 Legislature passed a bill to provide $125 million each biennium to help prevent and suppress wildfires. “Lawmakers have agreed that Washington taxpayers can’t afford to keep losing $150 million each year to out-of-control wildfires,” Franz said at the time, referring to the cost of fighting fires.

And late last year, Franz announced an initiative to protect 1 million acres of forest land from development. “My belief is this is an issue that we should not be divided on,” she said. “People come and stay and live in Washington state because it is the Evergreen State.”

The addition of federal efforts is welcome. As wildfires throughout the West have demonstrated in recent years, blazes are increasing in frequency and intensity while exacting a growing financial toll.

“You’re going to have forest fires. The question is how catastrophic do those fires have to be?” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said. “The time to act is now if we want to ultimately over time change the trajectory of these fires.”

Improved forest management is a crucial part of changing that trajectory. A $50 billion federal plan (over 10 years) is under consideration to increase the use of controlled burns and logging to reduce trees and other vegetation that fuel large wildfires.

Some critics oppose controlled burns because they create air pollution and can grow out of control. Those are valid concerns. But reducing the fuel that drives enormous fires — the kind that can shroud urban areas in smoke and haze for days — is essential to diminishing the risk and to protecting the boundary between developed areas and forests. A lack of forest management over the past several decades has combined with climate change to create a tinder box in our forests.

Management also is important to the health of forests. “We can’t focus solely on reacting and putting wildfires out,” Franz wrote. “We must be proactive and deploy science-based strategies that prevent severe fires from happening in the first place.” That means paying attention to the long-term health of forests and watersheds.

As President Joe Biden has noted: “Conserving our forests and other critical ecosystems is indispensable — an indispensable piece of keeping our climate goals within reach as well as many other key priorities that we have together.”