Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands. After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.
Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.
After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.
“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.
Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.
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Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.
But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.
From 2002 to 2014, the Forest Service completed controlled burns on about 132,000 acres in Washington, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That was less than half the land treated with controlled burns over that period in Idaho — and less than a fifth the acreage treated in Oregon.
The bill would loosen several of the plan’s controlled-burn restrictions and says the DNR could not deny permits for controlled burns without “clear evidence” that the resulting smoke would violate air-quality standards or cause an imminent public-health threat.
Parlette’s other legislation, Senate Bill 6511, would require the DNR to do controlled burns or simple thinning on all possible state lands by the end of June and report by the end of the year on efforts to push for similar treatments on nonstate lands.
Joe Smillie, a spokesman for the DNR, said the agency has concerns over the bills, including limited staff and time to implement some of the provisions, as well as the potential for violations of clean-air standards.
However, the agency agrees the state’s smoke-management policy is “out of date” and should be revised, said Karen Arnold, the DNR’s smoke-management manager, speaking at a Senate committee hearing on the bills Wednesday.
Scott Richards, a lobbyist with the Nature Conservancy, testified in support of Parlette’s bills.
“Prescribed fire is an essential tool for reducing the intensity and risk of catastrophic fires and the lingering statewide smoke impacts,” he said.
Tim Boyd, a lobbyist for timber companies Vaagen Brothers and Boise Cascade, said the state also should look at allowing more thinning and timber sales, which would both boost forest health and aid struggling lumber mills.
“Prescribed fire is a useful tool but it’s not the only tool, and it may not be the first and best tool,” Boyd said.
The DNR is asking lawmakers for an additional $24 million in this year’s supplemental budget for new staff, equipment and training to fight and prevent wildfires. Goldmark, the agency chief, blasted legislators last year for shortchanging fire prevention.
But Parlette suggested DNR needs to change its burn policies instead of just asking for more cash.
“I am not interested in sending more money without looking at the policy,” she said.