Northwest wildfires spur call for improved forest management

2014-07-24 Ashley Bach

The wildfire season in the Northwest this summer is unprecedented. Eighteen large fires have burned 900,000 acres in Washington and Oregon, including the largest single wildfire in Washington state history. The Carlton Complex Fire has raged across north-central Washington since July 14, burning more than 250,000 acres and destroying 300 homes. The fire, burning for 11 days, is still only 55 percent contained and threatens an additional 1,100 homes.

The human impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire are wide reaching, like the man who died from a stroke while trying to protect his home, much of the city of Pateros being burned to the ground and fruit farms being destroyed

The fires also rage as Congress is considering two different bills that would increase the amount of money the U.S. Forest Service has to fight wildfires. A proposal supported by President Obama and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), among others, would treat wildfires as natural disasters, which would free up more firefighting money and preserve money for thinning and other fire reduction activity. We wrote about the Obama-Wyden proposal -- and its difficulties getting approval -- here.

A second proposal from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others would also free up more money to fight forest fires, but in addition, it would require the Forest Service to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres and give the timber industry a bigger role in the process.

With the intense wildfires these past couple weeks, advocates of both bills are urging Congress to act.

Sen. Wyden to Northwest Public Radio:

“I think it’s very clear that these fires are getting bigger, they’re getting hotter and they’re getting more damaging.”

That means it costs more to fight those fires each year. The Department of the Interior expects to spend close to $1.8 billion this year alone. That’s about $500 million more than what’s budgeted. In fact, firefighting money has come up short in seven of the past dozen years. What happens then, Wyden says.

“The bureaucracy raids the prevention program in order to secure money to fight the fires and of course the problem gets worse.”

Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities - an Oregon group that advocates for active forest management and healthy rural communities - sent an email this week to supporters drumming up support for Sen. McCain's plan, which would "dramatically increase resources for forest restoration programs."

The legislation also restores proactive forest management by increasing treatment of 7.5 million acres of federal land, while promoting the use of private industry to help the Forest Service to thin our forests by enhancing existing forest stewardship contracting law.

According to the Senators, if this bill had been enacted for Fiscal Year 2014, the Forest Service could have on hand about $1.9 billion that they predict is needed to fight this year's fires compared to the $1.3 billion appropriated by Congress. The Forest Service would also be allowed to access up to $1 billion in emergency spending for suppression while dedicating $950 million for hazardous fuel management, landscape scale forest management, and treating insect infested areas.

Forest restoration being the key to preventing wildfires is also a political issue on the state level. The Seattle Times, The Olympian and the Vancouver Columbian editorial boards all weighed in this week on how the current wildfires relate to state and federal forest policy.

The Seattle Times:

(State) lawmakers allocated $19 million for the season’s firefighting; so far $25 million has been spent.

We are not entirely helpless. State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who grew up 10 miles from the (Carlton Complex) blaze, says the state can do more to thin diseased and bug-damaged trees in public forests, and to remove low-hanging branches so that flames do not reach the crowns of trees. Last year, Goldmark asked for $10 million over two years; he got $4 million. Washington’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell seek additional funding for fire prevention in federal forests.

The Olympian says the feds in particular have dropped the ball on forest management:

Federal, state and local elected officials can’t control climatic conditions, but they can fully fund restorative forest health programs and mandate Community Wildfire Protection Plans to prevent forest fires and minimize the social and economic impact when they do occur.

The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in the state of Washington, but it has effectively abandoned all active forest management practices since the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s. This has created a dangerous excess of wildfire fuel on federally managed land in our state’s forests.

This intentional inaction by the U.S. Forest Service has placed an undue burden on the state Department of Natural Resources to use its precious resources doing restorative work on federal land. Meanwhile, the state Legislature has slashed DNR funding to upgrade forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth on its own land.

It’s a fool’s game, because taxpayers ultimately pay for unhealthy forests through fire suppression costs, and the loss of jobs and property. The state spends tens of millions annually to fight fires, and that amount doubles when the cost to local governments is added.

Jessica Karraker of Ellensburg, in an opinion piece that ran this week in the Everett Herald, the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Ellensburg Daily Record, said some of the carnage from the wildfires burning right now in Washington could have been prevented.

Had the U.S. Forest Service gone into these timberlands, or had the work bid on by loggers to thin out overpopulated areas, we would not be seeing as aggressive of fires; and the men and women who are currently attempting to cease this beast would have a better chance of stopping it.

Our forests are not being properly managed because the fear is that loggers will displace an owl by felling a tree, harming the homes of native species, or running out wildlife. But by mismanaging our forests on false practices and data, we have now created the perfect situation for a catastrophic chain reaction that is threatening communities, destroying wildlife habitat, and putting lives of men and women on the line.

Fires that have the opportunity to ignite in these densely over populated tree stands burn faster, more intense, unpredictably, and create their own weather systems within the smoke columns, creating spot fires. Had our forests been managed, right now we would be seeing a lower intensity fire that would crawl along the ground instead of burning up the trees, crowning, and jumping farther and faster. Healthy logging is not clear-cutting. Healthy logging is thinning trees, eliminating the standing dead and diseased, allowing for the conservation of our timberland, creating and maintaining healthy forests for humans to enjoy and for animals to live in, and avoid risking lives of those who are fighting to protect our homes and community.