The U.S. Forest Service wants more controlled burns in Washington forests to make them resistant to summer wildfires. But rules administered by the state Department of Natural Resources have stymied efforts to step up the burns.

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TONASKET, Okanogan County — As a wildfire advanced in August toward homes in the Aeneas Valley, a crew of Forest Service firefighters made their stand on familiar ground — a stretch of Ponderosa pine they had deliberatively burned during cooler spring and fall seasons to clear out undergrowth.

In this thinned-out forest, they halted the northern advance of the North Star wildfire, one of the largest blazes of the summer that consumed hundreds of square miles across the state.

“This definitely gave us the upper hand to hold the fire where we wanted,” said Matt Marsh, a Forest Service task force leader who directed the effort.

Controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, are widely backed by scientists as an important tool for keeping forests healthier and less susceptible to devastating wildfires. Forest Service officials and other forestry experts want to step up the scale of these burns in Washington.

But they’ve been hindered by a surprising roadblock: the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency responsible for much of the wildland firefighting in Washington.

DNR enforces a strict set of rules aimed at keeping smoke from drifting into communities — effectively limiting the scope of controlled burns sought by the Forest Service and others. Meanwhile, DNR has stopped conducting burns on its own forest lands.

The North Star Fire burned an area of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest so intensely that it sterilized the soil and turned it into dust. Reidy said this area never had any large-diameter logging, fuel ladder reduction, or prescribed burns- which likely caused the blaze to burn more intensely.  (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
The North Star Fire burned an area of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest so intensely that it sterilized the soil and turned it into dust. Reidy said this area never had any large-diameter logging, fuel ladder reduction, or prescribed burns- which likely caused the blaze to burn more intensely. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

“It’s a very low-risk kind of policy where they’re very averse to putting fire on the landscape. Consequently, it’s been very hard to get the burning done,” said Rick Graw, a Forest Service air quality manager for the Pacific Northwest region.

That helps explain why the Forest Service has carried out burns on far fewer acres in Washington than in Oregon, Montana, Idaho and California.

For example, during a 13-year period ending in 2014, the Forest Service completed controlled burns on 4.7 percent of Oregon’s 15.7 million acres of national forests, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Washington, the Forest Service burned only 1.4 percent of its 9.3 million acres.

DNR and its burn rules are the responsibility of elected state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, a longtime Okanogan Highlands rancher and former wildland volunteer firefighter.

Goldmark, a Democrat first elected in 2008, has been a high-profile advocate of thinning millions of acres of dangerously crowded and unhealthy western forests. He has publicly chastised federal and state lawmakers for shortchanging forest-health budgets.

But Goldmark views chain saws and other equipment as the first tools of choice for thinning the woodlands.

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Goldmark said DNR is open to considering policy changes allowing more controlled burns. But he expressed little enthusiasm for leading the charge, pointing to blowback his agency gets when smoke drifts into towns.

“We have to be conservative, heaven only knows,” Goldmark said. “Of course we want to be helpful in terms of prescribed burns, but we have the responsibility that communities don’t get smoked out, and that’s not an easy task.”

He said the issue hasn’t been raised to him by Forest Service leaders and called it “a little disingenuous of those who haven’t born the wrath of smoked-out folks” to criticize his agency’s approach.

Currently, DNR conducts limited burning of slash piles in meadows, but does no prescribed burns on the lands it manages — a departure from agency practice in previous decades.

Goldmark is also wary of giving the green light to large burns on Washington’s 9 million acres of Forest Service lands. He questions whether burns can be safely conducted in forests that have not been first been logged or thinned.

Forest Service officials say some heavily wooded areas do require thinning before a controlled burn. But they say other areas can be treated with fire alone — a less expensive option.

A case in point is the 850-acre tract that was used by the Forest Service crew in its successful stand to defend the Aeneas Valley this summer.

In years past, the Forest Service had logged some of the larger trees, and hired crews to cut back brush. But for most of that acreage, the only treatment was a prescribed fire in 2012, said Shawn Plank, a Forest Service assistant fire management officer.

“We match the treatment to what’s on the ground,” Plank said. “If I can accomplish the hazard fuel reduction without a saw, then I would like to do that.”

For an agency that spends so much time putting out blazes, the Forest Service’s push to put more flames on the Eastern Washington landscape is a significant shift that reflects decades of research about the role of fire in forest ecosystems.

Scientists found that natural fires in lower- and mid- elevation Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests historically occurred at frequent intervals, and the thick-barked trees typically survived these fires. But decades of fire-suppression allowed a buildup of young trees and other brush that contributes to more destructive wildfires.

So in the 1990s, the Forest Service began conducting controlled burned to reduce this fuel.

Forest scientists have concluded that these prescribed fires can make forests less prone to disease, and benefit wildlife. And when wildfires erupt, the stands treated with fire are likely to burn with less intensity, offering a place for crews to set defensive lines.

Three forest service firefighters died and four were injured during this year’s fires near Twisp.

“This is very critical for people to understand,” said Meg Trebon, assistant fire manager on the Methow Valley Ranger District, where two of the firefighters who died worked. “Firefighting is a risky business, and the way we increase our chances of success is to have safe places to put in our people.”

Still, DNR and other government agencies that approve controlled burns worry about the consequences when they go awry.

In 2000, a National Park Service prescribed fire in New Mexico, intended to burn 900 acres, whipped out of control, scorching 40,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes. The damage toll came to $1 billion, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

In Washington, there have been no such debacles. But the U.S. Forest Service has seen smaller mishaps when weather changes unexpectedly funneled smoke into populated areas.

In September of 2009, smoke from 800-acre prescribed burn blew from the Naches Ranger District into the Yakima Valley, and the resulting pollution reached unhealthy levels for five hours.

That triggered a fierce round of complaints to DNR for approving the burn. The Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency initially fined the Forest Service $12,000; the penalty was later rescinded.

“Unfortunately it was the time of year that the Central Washington State Fair was going on, and we got calls from those folks, and from county commissioners and the general public,” said Gary Pruitt, the clean-air agency’s executive director. “We got dozens of calls, some of them being highly politically connected. It got my attention.”

DNR reacted with new restrictions that effectively halted all controlled burns in the Naches District for more than a year.

In 2011, a DNR official acknowledged the agency had gone too far and removed some of the restrictions. But it left in place rules requiring burns to be smaller and conducted over only one day.

The Naches controlled burn, however controversial, later proved a boon as a virtual fire break to crews fighting the 2012 Wild Rose Fire, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic.

While DNR has worried about smoke pollution, which can cause serious health problems and is regulated under state and federal clean-air laws, researchers say it’s inevitable the forests will burn. The only question is when — and under what conditions.

It’s a tradeoff the public needs to come to grips with, said Michael Medler, chair of the environmental studies at Western Washington University, who studies wildfires.

“You don’t stop these fires. You just put them off,” said Medler, a former wildland firefighter. “Would you like us to pick a day and dump X amount of smoke? Or would you like to gamble and say in two or three years you’ll get something that brings two or three times as much?”

Conducting controlled burns under good weather conditions generates far less pollution than massive smoke plumes from the huge wildfires that broke out amid last summer’s heat.

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At their peak, the Okanogan fires in August, for example, generated air pollution 20 times worse than the 2009 controlled burn that caused the fuss in Yakima, state air-quality data show.

No one suggests controlled burns are a panacea. Once a forest stand undergoes a controlled burn, it can still be hit by wildfire. But Forest Service officials say the fire has a better chance of burning less explosively, with more trees surviving.

The 106-page state smoke management policy that guides DNR was last revised in 1998.

It emphasizes preventing air pollution in populated areas and says the agency will only greenlight prescribed burns on the day they are scheduled rather than the day before, as is done in Oregon and California.

Matt Reidy, district ranger for Tonasket Ranger District, points out a healthy, mature Ponderosa Pine that has been scorched in previous fires and lost its lower limbs. Reidy said the trees to its right recently lost their lower limbs to a controlled burn, and will be less susceptible to major fires since they have been through a low-intensity fire.  (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Matt Reidy, district ranger for Tonasket Ranger District, points out a healthy, mature Ponderosa Pine that has been scorched in previous fires and lost its lower limbs. Reidy said the trees to its right recently lost their lower limbs to a controlled burn, and will be less susceptible to major fires since they have been through a low-intensity fire. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)

That’s a problem, Forest Service officials say, noting they’ve sometimes received last-minute notices from Olympia to cancel planned burns even under relatively safe weather conditions. And since helicopter pilots and other contractors who assist in the burning may already be hired and standing by, the Forest Service ends up paying these crews for work that never gets done.

“It eats into the budget and that means I can do fewer treatments,” said Trebon, the Forest Service official from the Methow District.

To try to avoid such cancellations, the Forest Service now designs smaller burns that are more costly to carry out.

Prescribed burn advocates say that — in an era of climate change that may unleash more and larger fires — the state should allow larger prescribed burns.

“We have a set of regulations that are fairly outdated,” said Reese Lolley, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Eastern Washington Forest Program. “More and more, I think we are looking at how do we better live with fire, and how do we use it as a tool.”

Forest Service officials say they also have encouraged DNR to revise the policy, but so far have not found much support.

“We’d love to work with DNR rather than have this opposition,” said Graw. “We have to get off the dime from where we are now.”

In the aftermath of this year’s record-setting wildfire season, they may be able to make more progress.

Goldmark says he is willing to talk as long as Forest Service officials are willing to make the case to the communities most affected by the burns — and share some of the heat if complaints arise.

“If they have suggestions on how smoke policy should be changed, absolutely, I’m happy to take a look at them,” he said.