Legislature could increase prescribed burns and private fire contractors

2017-02-09 Ashley Bach

The Washington Legislature last year considered several reforms to the way the state fights wildfires, and it approved a pilot project to increase the use of prescribed burns to make forests more resilient to fire. That spirit of change is continuing in this year's legislative session, with state lawmakers considering more ways to increase prescribed burns and legislation that would make it easier for the private sector to fight fires. 

Testimony and comments from lawmakers at recent House committee meetings suggest the Legislature is considering whether last year's pilot project on prescribed burns is enough. The state's air quality rules may also need to be changed.

From the news site Lens

Healthy forests need prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads and allow fire-resilient trees to grow again, (testified Dr. Paul Hessburg, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Research Lab), citing other regions in the U.S. where controlled burns are permitted by “social license” or community consensus, even if technically prohibited by rules.

“Land managers can pull off the prescribed burning,” Hessburg said. “They’re making less smoke, and latitude was given. And we need to create that, by having a better conversation in Washington State about how we trade prescribed burning smoke for wildfire smoke.”

When asked by (Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen) whether lawmakers should try to build social license under current clean air laws, or change them, Hessburg said “I think we can do both.”

One option is to expand a DNR pilot project last fall called Putting Fire To Work, that allowed prescribed burns even if they exceeded air quality standards. It is a move supported by newly-elected Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who wants to make it a long-term agency program.

At a January 17 meeting of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Franz told panel members the state needs to ensure “that we are implementing the kinds of tools we’ve seen work.”

The results of that pilot project may also provide lawmakers with the momentum to create the “social license” needed for further prescribed burning despite existing air quality standards. A DNR report on the pilot project is due to lawmakers by late 2018.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, along with Rep. Blake, has also sponsored legislation that would make it easier for private contractors and equipment owners to fight wildfires. These parties have helped tremendously to fight past fires, Kretz said, but they can be stymied in joining the fight by excess paperwork and bureaucracy.  

Kretz: “Some of the people who were falling off the list or are not being utilized, really made a difference in some of these fires. We’ve got to make sure we get anybody that’s qualified. We had contractors in the area that have no intention of chasing wildfires around the state or around the west. They’re not going to enter into any contracts. But these are people who have the qualifications,” he added.

Blake agreed. He told Lens that “we’ve got to find a way to get past the bureaucracy to allow” highly-skilled machine operators to participate in fighting wildfires, particularly in and right around their own communities. “You may have a (bulldozer operator) with 40 years experience” but “they may have no interest in traveling.”

The (Department of Natural Resources) paperwork required for contractors can also discourage some people who own machines such as Dozer tractors, because they are uninterested in “jumping through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops” to work 20 or 30 miles from home, said Blake. “And then next thing you know, his community’s on fire, and he says I’m here, ‘I’m willing, I’m more skilled than anybody you’ve got out there,’ but he’s not on their (master) list and he can’t be used. It makes no sense.”

HB 1489’s provisions mirror recommendations for improved initial fire response made in a December 2016 report to DNR by the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. A more comprehensive look at some of those recommendations is planned by the committee, but no publication date is scheduled yet. The committee chair is Wildland Fire Liaison Gary Berndt who, under HB 1489, could play an active role in the outreach process to private contractors.

Basing the bill provisions on the committee’s recommendations would have the state “defer this to the folks who know what they’re doing.” That is according to Jason Callahan, director of governmental relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA).

The hope is to maximize the private sector on the ground in local communities as much as possible, lawmakers said.

Rep. Blake said their goal is to create “a continuous firefighting effort that keeps small fires from becoming big fires,” which starts by using all resources closest to the fires.

He added, “It’s a whole combination of problems that I think he’s (Kretz) trying to address, but I think the biggest one is, there is skill and knowledge out there that’s probably retired. Maybe he keeps a CAT at the farm just because they’re attached to it, and when their community’s on fire, they are willing to step up. And we’ve got to have a process so those resources can be used.”