DISASTROUS fires have ravaged homes, communities and forests in Washington state in the past two weeks. Multiple fires have closed major roads, led to the evacuation of thousands, scorched more than 400 square miles and destroyed about 150 homes. The lives of both residents and firefighters remain in jeopardy and the road to recovery will be long and costly.
While the fires continue to burn, Washington state must focus on protecting people and communities, and caring for those who have lost so much. I am thankful for the firefighters, National Guard and all who are putting their own lives at risk to battle these blazes, and I have the deepest sympathy to those who have lost everything.
As our state deals with the trauma caused by the largest fire in its recorded history, the debate has already begun on how we as a society can mitigate and reduce future catastrophic fires and prepare resilient communities.
Climate change is leading to a hotter, drier Eastern Washington and a longer fire season. Combined with poor forest conditions, it means the fire footprint in our state could more than double in the next 40 years.
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Imagine the impacts on Washington communities — more smoke, more homes and people endangered, and a greater strain on firefighting resources. Disastrous fires are not just a community safety issue, but also an enormous economic issue.
Communities around Washington are already adapting to this new fire reality. The Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition near Leavenworth is a local collaborative group making its community safer from fire and creating healthier forests.
It’s a hub in the national Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, where private and public agencies, groups and individuals come together to address challenges before a catastrophic fire to minimize harm to residents, homes, businesses, utilities and other community assets.
Community preparation is vital, as is a focus on forest health and restoration.
Just as a healthy human fights off illness, a healthy forest is better able to resist catastrophic megafire. Restoring state forests to health is the key to mitigating the effects of climate change that are causing more disastrous fires.
Consider a forest where the trees have been cut for myriad human needs, and the natural role of fire has been interrupted for many decades. Today, many such forests are dense with small trees and loaded with flammable undergrowth ready to burn. Driven by hot and windy weather, a blaze in a forest like this races through the dry underbrush and up into the treetops. It jumps easily from tree to tree, across natural barriers like rivers and valleys, and quickly threatens entire communities.
Tens of thousands of acres of forest across our state are damaged, unhealthy, primed to go up in flames, and in desperate need of help.
Restoration in our dry forests is complex, but offers big payoffs: safer communities, clean drinking water, vital habitat for wildlife. Thinning involves removing many small trees and giving the others space to grow large, healthy and fire resilient. Controlled burns by trained and well-equipped state and federal fire crews strengthen the forests by reducing the fuels that feed extreme fires in extreme summer weather.
It’s meticulous, hard work, but is scientifically proven to create more resilient forests. Smaller natural fires might come through from time to time, but the forest will survive where there is greater diversity, resistance and resiliency in the face of enormous catastrophic megafires.
Healthy forests and fire-prepared communities require investment. Fire knows no boundaries. Investment from state, federal and private sources is needed to restore our forests and empower communities to prepare for fire in a changing climate.
At the federal level, Congress has created the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that provides federal funding and a way to bring federal, state, tribal and private landowners and stakeholders together for collaborative forest restoration. In Eastern Washington, five forest collaboratives are bringing together diverse groups including loggers, recreationists and public and private land owners committed to restoring the forest landscapes to health.
The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed fully funding this program at $40 million in its Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill for fiscal year 2015. Congress should do so.
In addition, the Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy includes federal, tribal, state and local governments and nongovernment organizations to address growing wildfire challenges. The Nature Conservancy is a partner, and we urge full participation by state and local communities.
The state Department of Natural Resources will soon be handing the Legislature a data-driven estimate of forest-restoration needs on state, private and federal lands from 2015 to 2020 named the Healthy Forests Report.
It’s imperative that the 2015 Legislature support the Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies as they embrace the challenges and the potential of restoration to keep our communities safe, protect lives and mitigate the devastating costs of catastrophic fires.
Faced with the reality of climate change and the growing impacts of catastrophic fires, it’s more critical than ever to work diligently, across the boundaries of ownership and management authority, to protect and restore our state’s forests and protect communities.
Michael S. Stevens is Washington state director of The Nature Conservancy.