The explosive start to this wildfire season is yet another wake-up call for all Washingtonians.
Already, more than 1,200 fires and more than 240,000 acres have burned across the state. Along with local and federal partners, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is currently battling five major fires.
And there’s no relief on the horizon as the state struggles with hot, dry fuels throughout the state. These fires have put an incredible strain on our firefighters who are working 16-hour days for weeks on end. Three firefighters have already been injured — one severely — during this fire season.
While we are working night and day protecting communities and responding to fires, we can’t lose sight of the need to be proactive and reduce the risks of fire. We have a forest-health crisis spanning millions of acres in Washington. We must accelerate our pace and scale to restore our forests and make them more resilient against stressors like drought.
For too long, we’ve kept fire at arm’s length, excluding it from places like the dry forests of Eastern Washington, where low-intensity fires used to occur about every decade. Decades of aggressive fire suppression built up excess vegetation that now fuels larger and more destructive fires. Climate change is only making the problem worse.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Indigenous peoples have long used fire to sustain healthy ecosystems, support important resources and keep their communities safe. As tribes who have lived on these lands since time immemorial, the Yakama Nation’s natural resource management practices are founded on traditions, knowledge and wisdom handed down over generations. We all have a responsibility to protect the lands in our care for generations to come by following their lead.
We must change our relationship with fire, putting prescribed fire back into the hands of land managers and preparing our communities to live in fire ecosystems.
DNR has a blueprint to get us there, the 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, a road map for us to restore and manage our forests at a pace and scale that meets the moment. Central to the plan is a goal to conduct 1.25 million acres of landscape-scale forest health treatments by 2037. State, federal and tribal partners have led the way in treating nearly 320,000 acres since 2017, restoring these forests to a more naturally fire-resistant state.
For forest resilience to be meaningful for people and create lasting results, we also must do all we can to help Washington’s communities bolster their own resilience to wildfire. And we need support from all levels of government to make this happen. Resilience means that everyone has a leadership role to play, from protecting your own home to proactive communitywide wildfire prevention planning.
A new report from The Nature Conservancy estimates that we need federal investments of at least $5 billion per year over the next 10 years to support wildfire risk reduction and resilience. Congress can and should include this support as part of the infrastructure and climate-change legislative packages that are under consideration right now in D.C.
Washington state has stepped up: Lawmakers showed their commitment to forest health, wildfire response and community resilience by passing House Bill 1168 earlier this year. This transformative legislation created a first-of-its-kind Wildfire Response, Forest Restoration and Community Resilience funding account within the state budget and provides funding to accelerate implementation of the 20-Year Strategic Plan.
Passage of HB 1168 is a landmark step in the right direction and shows us that we can and must make our state’s residents resilient to fire danger. And Washington’s U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier are among the co-sponsors of the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021, which would incentivize and fund programs to support public agencies conducting large-scale burns.
This momentum at multiple levels of government is significant. But given the scale of the crisis, greater federal commitment and funding is needed to equip local leaders with the tools needed to prepare for wildfire, respond to wildfire and quickly recover after a fire. When we invest in people and our lands, we can create lasting solutions for our local communities.
Wildfire resilience is not just a land management issue. It’s a matter of public health, equity, safety and a climate-resilient future. Everyday people bear the brunt of wildfire impacts, from increased asthma rates in children to destroyed homes and damaged landscapes for food, recreation, fish and wildlife, and clean water sources. The harm is disproportionately borne by historically underserved and excluded communities, often low-income people of color, for whom recovering from wildfire and associated economic and public-health concerns can take much longer. This is a public-health crisis.
Tribal nations, community associations, local nonprofits and homeowners are already doing resilience work and creating local jobs — and we have the federal building blocks to support this work, from the U.S. Forest Service’s and Department of the Interior’s hazardous fuels programs to FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program. It’s time for the federal government to further support these priorities with the transformative level of funding needed to meet the scale of the problem.
Our past compels us to protect and enhance what we have for future generations. That future depends on communities working together for the stewardship of our natural resources.