If forest land isn’t actively managed, catastrophic wildfires can burn thousands of acres in days, or even hours, putting property and lives in danger.

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Each year, from late summer into early fall, wildfires leave their mark across much of the Northwest. Heat, drought and unhealthy forest conditions add to the risk of the natural cycle of burning becoming catastrophic blazes. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service announced a new strategy for managing catastrophic wildfires by improving forest health.

Ironically, fire plays a role in healthy landscapes. It clears underbrush and keeps fire fuel levels low. It creates space for new growth, and prompts some trees to release their seeds. Fire also clears out unhealthy trees that can harbor pest infestations, like the bark beetle, which is critical as large infestations create swaths of dead wood – fuel for large fires. But if forest land isn’t actively managed, fuel builds up allowing catastrophic wildfires to burn thousands of acres in days, or even hours, putting property and lives in danger. Improving forest health is key to reducing the damage from catastrophic wildfires.

“The challenges before us require a new approach,” Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen says in a press release outlining the USFS priorities. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders mitigate to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.”

Crews battle a blaze with a bucket drop, east of Blue Lake on the west face of Lamanasky Mountain, working to stop the fire’s northern progression down the Sinlahekin Valley. (Provided by WFPA)
Crews battle a blaze with a bucket drop, east of Blue Lake on the west face of Lamanasky Mountain, working to stop the fire’s northern progression down the Sinlahekin Valley. (Provided by WFPA)

In 2017, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources rolled out a 20-year plan to improve the health of state forests. Information was gathered from agencies and organizations with backgrounds in forest conservation, the timber industry, science, as well as local, state, federal and tribal leadership.

Of the 10 million acres of forested land in Eastern Washington, nearly 2.7 million acres needs restoration to make it more resilient to insects, disease and wildfires, the plan says. This involves implementing science-driven methods for preventing and reducing catastrophic wildfires.

Restoration projects require time, but already are showing results. Vaagen Brothers Lumber has been working with federal, state and local leaders to improve forest health at Colville National Forest through improved forest management techniques including thinning trees and doing stream restoration, replacing culverts for improved fish passage and better water quality. Their “A to Z” forest restoration project includes 54,000 acres, with work over a decade. Colville National Forest was on the top three forest producers in 2017.

View of a forest before thinning and after thinning, Republic, Washington.  (WFPA photos)
View of a forest before thinning and after thinning, Republic, Washington. (WFPA photos)

Thinning projects in Umatilla National Forest, which covers 1.4 million acres in southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon, are showing results, too. More space between trees means less fuel for wildfires, and less of a chance of the fire becoming catastrophic.

Healthier forests are more productive, offer habitat for wildlife and help keep the state green and beautiful. Healthier forests are also more resilient and resistant to insects, disease and catastrophic fires. Washington is the second-largest producer of lumber in the country, and protecting this natural resource has economic as well as ecological benefits.

The Washington Forest Protection Association is a trade association representing private forest landowners in Washington State. Members are large and small companies, individuals and families who grow, harvest and re-grow trees on about 4 million acres.