New legislation signed by governor would give a boost to controlled burns, which can help reduce the risk of runaway blazes.
The state Department of Natural Resources will conduct a pilot project to evaluate the benefits of prescribed burns under legislation signed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who in the aftermath of last year’s record-setting wildfire season wanted to see more done to try to head off runaway blazes. It also includes stronger language directing the state to approve permits for these burns.
“After the worst fire season on record in Okanogan County, I knew we needed to act this session to bring forward legislation to improve our forest health and reduce our risk of further catastrophic wildfires,” said Kretz in a written statement.
Prescribed burns, where fires are set intentionally to reduce fuel for wildfires, are widely backed by scientists as an important tool for keeping forests healthier and less susceptible to devastating wildfires.
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Forest Service officials want to step up the scale of these burns in Washington, which often occur in cooler weather in the spring or early fall. But a story published in The Seattle Times in October reported that those efforts have been hindered by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which must approve such burns on public and private lands before they take place.
The 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, the DNR has stopped conducting burns on its own forest lands.
The new legislation requires the DNR to contract with groups to undertake “forest resiliency burning” on lands prone to wildfires, and submit to the Legislature a report about the pilot-project burns by December 2018. It also directs the department, as part of this pilot project, to approve single or multiple-day burn permits if it appears unlikely the fires will “significantly contribute” to violations of air-quality standards.
“This sends a very clear message that the intent of the Legislature is to use prescribed fire, and we need to work through the barriers,” said Reese Lolley, a Yakima-based Nature Conservancy official who also serves as chair of the Washington Prescribed Fire Council.
Aaron Everett, the state forester, said the DNR will work with partners to identify which prescribed burns will be part of the pilot project. Given the tight timelines in the legislation, he expects the initial acreage included in the project won’t be on the DNR lands but on Forest Service or other lands where plans already have been drawn up for prescribed fire burns.
Everett said the new legislation will help the DNR “start a conversation with the public” about the benefits of prescribed fire versus the air pollution that can be caused from the smoke that they emit.
The 106-page state smoke-management policy that guides the DNR’s approval of burn permits was last revised in 1998. It emphasizes preventing air pollution in populated areas.
The information gathered from the pilot project could be used to “inform” future updates of the smoke-management policy, according to the legislation.
Controlled burns do have risks, and in a few instances have gotten out of control with big consequences. In 2000, for example, a National Park Service’s 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.
But the fires also can have big benefits.
Forest Service officials say areas treated with prescribed fire have a better chance of burning less explosively, with more trees surviving should they later be caught up in a summer blaze. They also can aid fire crews by offering them a safer place to make a stand to block the advance of an out-of-control blaze.