Forest management has not kept pace with forests. Historically, forests were more diverse and more fire-resistant with wider spacing between trees. Today’s forests are a “big, continuous carpet of closely-spaced trees. … Under these conditions, wildfires grow larger and burn hotter than before.”
Aaron Everett, the Washington state forester, made those comments earlier this summer before the Taylor Bridge fire started burning across 40 square miles between Cle Elum and Ellensburg, destroying at least 60 homes, killing livestock and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.
It’s past time for forest-management practices to catch up with the trees, and the state Department of Natural Resources has been trying to make that happen.
In January, Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, formed an advisory committee on forest health. After its report was released in July, Goldmark proposed issuing a hazard warning for parts of Washington, including Kittitas County where the Taylor Bridge fire is burning.
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Such a warning would allow the release of $4 million in state money to help landowners fight insect damage — one of the factors in more combustible forests — protect structures and “fireproof” forests.
The advisory committee’s report noted that in the past, frequent fires more naturally managed tree density and diversity in Eastern Washington forests, but effective fire suppression over the past century has resulted in increased tree density and more homogeneous forest composition.
The report cites examples of recent timber sales that have aimed at thinning forests, removing dead and dying material that can fuel fires and substituting tree species susceptible to insect outbreaks with those resistant and more likely to stop the spread of damage.
Goldmark called this forest management “pre-emptive,” aimed at preventing fires, increasing trees’ resistance to insects and, when a fire does start, keeping the fire “on the ground and out of the crowns of the trees where it spreads more quickly and causes such horrendous damage.”
He also said it keeps the fire out of the state budget. “Just in terms of suppression costs, the Taylor Bridge fire is going to be a multimillion [dollar] fire,” Goldmark said. Damage will add much more to the cost.
Unless the DNR effort is continued and expanded, the potential for more and bigger fires, and more damage, increases.
The agency estimates there will be more than 600,000 new homes in Washington by 2020 and that many of them will be in a danger zone the state agency calls the “wildlands urban interface.” Fire protection there, the DNR says, is more complex and more expensive.
All this reveals the urgency needed for all agencies and private owners managing forests to make changes in how this natural resource is used and protected.
Once the Taylor Bridge fire is out, planning needs to be ramped up for a strategic plan for wildland fire protection that matches the forests of today.
An earlier version of this story, published on Aug. 15, 2012 at 5 p.m., was corrected on Aug. 16, 2012 at 7:45 a.m. The previous version incorrectly stated the county where Taylor Bridge fire is burning. The fire is burning in Kittitas County.