As the spring rains ease, the Forest Service is looking for drier weather to set controlled fires that can help reduce the risk of runaway blazes. The tactic has gotten strong support in the Legislature.
Federal officials plan controlled burns on more than 9,000 acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest as the rains ease and the landscape dries.
The burns this spring are part of a broader effort in Washington to step up the pace of intentionally set fires that can reduce fuel loads and hopefully lower — in those treated areas — the risk of runaway summer blazes.
The work, which increasingly includes partnerships among landowners, benefits from strong support from lawmakers.
“There is a lot of leadership in our Legislature,” said Reese Lolley, the Nature Conservancy’s director of forest restoration and fire in Yakima. “I think they are recognizing how big the issue is, and that it’s not going to go away.”
Last year, the Legislature approved $800,000 in pilot projects for prescribed burns (15 were approved), air-quality monitoring and public education about why the burns were happening.
The Legislature this session has passed two bills focused on restoring these forests:
• Senate Bill 5546 calls for reducing fuel loads in 1 million acres of Washington forests by 2027 through prescribed fire, chain-saw thinning and other treatments.
• House Bill 1711 instructs the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to set up a system for evaluating the state lands most in need of treatment to reduce the potential for runaway wildfires.
Prescribed burns, in which fires are lit to reduce fuel for wildfires, are widely backed by scientists as an important tool for keeping forests healthier and less susceptible to devastating wildfires.
They have been developed in an era when decades of fire suppression have — in some forests — created dense stands of timber with lots of understory that can set the stage for huge fires like those that raged across large areas of Washington in the dry summer of 2015.
Prescribed burns are typically carried out during the cooler spring and fall months when conditions are dry enough for flames to help clear the forest without torching all the trees.
But the burns can be controversial, in part, because the smoke they emit may impair air quality. And on a few occasions, elsewhere in the West, some prescribed fires have burned out of control, causing property damage and generating intense criticism.
In Washington, the U.S. Forest Service has conducted controlled fires on 111,724 acres over the past decade.
The Seattle Times reported in 2015 that Forest Service officials had pushed to step up the scale of these burns in Washington. But their effort was hindered by the DNR, which must approve such burns on public and private lands.
During the past two years, relations between federal and state officials have improved as the DNR and the Legislature offered more support for reducing fuel loads through controlled burns.
Loren Torgerson, the department’s wildfire adviser, said a draft of the smoke-policy plan should be ready by October. He said the department also is planning prescribed burns on lands it manages, a change from years past when the department opted not to use fire to help restore the forests.
“We certainly want to be part of the conversation on how prescribed fire is used on the landscape,” Torgerson said.
Last year’s pilot projects helped spur discussion in many communities. Forest Service officials say they have worked harder to explain why they carry out these burns.
“It really brought the right partners and the right voices into the room together to take a hard look not only at how we conduct our operations but also … how we effectively communicate about fire in the ecosystem,” said Holly Krake, a Forest Service public-affairs officer.
This spring, the Forest Service wants to conduct 22 controlled burns at sites ranging from a 300-acre tract 30 miles west of Yakima to a 1,600-acre tract 25 miles east of Tonasket, Okanogan County.
So far, the winter snowpack has delayed the start of these operations in many areas.
Once the snow melts, the window for work may be short because heat can quickly dry out a forest and make it too volatile to attempt a controlled burn.
Forecasters, overall, predict this summer’s fire season will be fairly average. The wet spring could nurture grass growth that, when it dries out, could add to the fires.
But unlike the drought year of 2015, when fires started in the spring, major wildfires are not expected to start until July, according to Mike Powell, a fire analyst with the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center.