Prescribed burns on the rise in Washington

2016-10-07 Ashley Bach

Forest thinning is a valuable tool for managing forests that we write about a lot on this blog, including last week. But a tool that doesn't get as much attention but is also important is prescribed burning.

The Yakima Herald-Republic recently took a firsthand look at a prescribed burning program called the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot, which was approved by the Washington Legislature earlier this year.

Fighting fire with fire works because it reduces the fuel available to burn the next time a fire sparks, but its use has been limited by concerns over smoke impacts, complicated planning and costs.

A new effort aimed at expanding the use of prescribed fire in the state and addressing those limitations launched this month. The goal is to learn from the Rattlesnake Creek burn and others planned for a total of 11,000 acres in Eastern Washington this fall.

Most of those burns are on Forest Service land, because the state has shied away from prescribed fire in the past, due to smoke, safety and staffing concerns. But that needs to change, according to Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, who sponsored legislation authorizing the project last spring.

“What most people don’t realize is that fire is essential for the natural health of our forests,” Kretz said in a statement this spring. The devastation of the recent fires in Okanogan County made Kretz realize the state needs to use prescribed fire to improve the forests’ resiliency and protect communities and firefighters.

Known as the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project, the new effort attempts to make it easier for burn plans to get a go-ahead from air quality officials who want to ensure the weather favors smoke dispersal.

“The Legislature wanted us to look at ways to increase the use of prescribed burning as a tool in our forests, which need it broadly,” said state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Joe Smilie. “We are looking at ways to use it without impacting the communities that are sensitive to smoke.”

The prescribed burns in Eastern Washington work best in conjunction with forest thinning:

It’s safe for firefighters to set the forest here on fire because it’s already been thinned by a timber harvest. Unnaturally dense, stressed forests are driving much of the wildfire risk in the region, and a combination of thinning and prescribed fire restores a more open, healthy forest in which fire functions to maintain, not destroy, (said Reese Lolley, chair of the Washington Prescribed Fire Council who also works for The Nature Conservancy in Yakima.)

“I couldn’t have asked for a more textbook picture of what we want from these fire effects,” (said Naches District firefighter Ty Johnson) as a dense cluster of small trees burst into flames, a sudden outburst of big, aggressive fire compared to the quieter sizzling of brush and shrubs.

The Methow Valley News in June did a long story on local prescribed burns in North-Central Washington. The positive results of the burns are quantifiable, officials said.

In addition to creating healthier forests that are able to weather wildfire, doing thinning and prescribed burning provides areas where firefighters can safely fight a fire. “I know from personal experience as a firefighter that these treatment areas are really useful in creating suppression opportunities,” said (Meg Trebon, assistant fire management officer for fuels with the Methow Valley Ranger District).

Trebon listed half-a-dozen large fires in and around the Methow Valley, from the Farewell Fire in 2003 through the Twisp River Fire last summer, where prescribed burns created safe areas and anchors for firefighters.

“I’m not looking to fireproof the forest, but to build resilience in an appropriate manner, specifically reducing wildfire hazards,” said Trebon.

“It’s a huge educational thing. People need to understand that prescribed burning needs to be done to burn these areas in a controlled fashion. When there is a wildfire — because there will be a wildfire — it makes it less severe and safer for firefighters and the public,” said (Dale Swedberg, manager of the Okanogan Lands Operations and Prescribed Burn Program for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW)).