Our warming world will continue to burn catastrophically unless we take decisive action to address climate change.
ONCE again our state has set a grim record. For the second summer in a row, we are experiencing the largest forest fires in our state’s history. Nearly 1 million acres have burned, hundreds of homes have been lost, and most devastating, three firefighters lost their lives fighting the blazes that blanket North Central Washington.
Sadly, this summer’s tragedy is not unexpected. The Nature Conservancy and many others sounded an alarm that climate change, drought, the declining health of our forests and a lack of funding for prevention are creating the perfect storm in our wild lands.
Today, we are dealing with the catastrophic results of inaction. As we mourn those who gave their lives and offer up support to the thousands still battling fires, it is time to take action to diminish the escalating human and financial costs of forest fires. Critical decisions must be made that allow us to restore our forests to health, adapt to our changing climate and develop resiliency in the face of fire.
Northwest forests are in terrible shape. A 2014 study by the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy found that 2.7 million acres in Eastern Washington require some sort of active management to make the forest more resilient to wildfires, insects and disease exacerbated by the changing climate. According to the International Journal of Wildland Fire, an increase of just 1 degree Celsius greatly increases the risk of wildfires in Eastern Washington. Inadequate funding including failure to pass the federal Wildlife Disaster Funding Act has left smoke-filled skies, communities in peril, and lives and homes destroyed.
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Collaborative, large-scale forest restoration across multiple ownerships is urgently needed. Fires and unhealthy forests don’t obey property lines, so neither can restoration efforts. It’s costly, but the price of inaction is even higher. First, we must stop the cycle of fire-prevention borrowing, which The Seattle Times called out as problematic in a recent editorial.
Right now the Forest Service budget is consumed with fighting megafires, leaving little for prevention. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat catastrophic fires like we’ve experienced the last two years as the disasters that they are and fund fighting them through FEMA, allowing the Forest Service funding to go toward prevention of future disasters. We are grateful that our entire congressional delegation — Republican and Democrat alike — have signed on to co-sponsor this bill.
We must also expand funding to the president’s budget of $60 million for the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, which promotes science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes, including projects in North Central Washington and the Colville National Forest. In five years, this program has reduced the risk of megafires on 1.43 million acres nationwide.
If we are to meaningfully reduce fire risk, our state government must take action as well. During the last legislative session, the Department of Natural Resources pursued a conservative request of $20 million for cross-ownership restoration of the most at-risk forests, a top priority of The Nature Conservancy. The Seattle Times had an excellent summary of that debate recently. While the final funding of $10 million was a step in the right direction, ultimately our state needs to significantly increase our investments in restoration, including cutting out insect-laden trees, the removal of dry brush and the use of controlled burns to reduce fire intensity and risk.
Our forests have been fragmented by disparate ownership, making management and smart development challenging and costly. The state’s acquisition of the Teanaway in 2013 and The Nature Conservancy’s purchase of 48,000 acres of forestland outside Cle Elum are examples of efforts to reconnect scattered land holdings and create a cohesive plan to restore forest health and prevent erratic development. Weaving together the fractured landscape, choosing wisely where we build, and preparing communities, families and businesses for inevitable fire, can mitigate risk. Partnership between private conservation groups, public agencies and local communities is critical to create healthy wild lands.
We can no longer ignore the reality and the impact of climate change. While we must restore our forests, our warming world will continue to burn catastrophically unless we also take decisive action here in Washington and around the world to address climate change. This summer’s fires are one of the harshest reminders yet that curbing emissions is critical to our future and Washington must take a leadership role to transition toward a clean energy economy.
Our state’s iconic forests are integral to our well-being — providing water, jobs, wildlife habitat and recreation. The communities in and around forests provide homes, a vibrant economy and a lifestyle that exemplifies what makes our state special. All of this and more is at risk unless we take decisive, proactive steps to reduce climate pollution, restore forest health, and develop resilient communities. We know what needs to be done. We all have a role to play in demanding action from our elected leaders. Is this year’s record-breaking fire season the one that finally compels us to act?