Impact of forest fires felt across the West


Forest fire season is upon us in Washington State. Experts say the season will probably start off mild because of a wet June but rest assured, the fires will happen, especially in Eastern Washington, which is experiencing hot and dry weather.

Also adding to the urgency: State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark recently said that several Eastern Washington counties should be declared forest health hazards because of widespread damage from insects and disease that has made the forests susceptible to wildfires.

Tree die-offs are likely to occur across nearly 3 million acres in Eastern Washington over the next 15 years, according to state estimates.

“Unhealthy forests are contributing to the destructive fires we have seen in Colorado and across the West,” Goldmark said, adding that he’s taking action to improve forest health “before it is too late.”

Once the counties are declared forest health hazards, some landowners may be able to conduct thinning projects to protect from large forest fires.

Goldmark announced the proposal Monday as he toured two forested areas near Blewett Pass between Cle Elum and Ellensburg in Klickitat County. One area was dense with damaged trees, while a project in the other area had thinned out the diseased and weaker trees.

“If you don’t pay attention to the problem, fires will develop and it will affect communities in a disastrous manner,” Goldmark said.

He said he’ll direct $4.3 million allocated by the state Legislature this year toward projects that will help improve forest health.

While Northwest firefighters wait for the fires to begin (and veterans show their unique ability to fight fires), forest fires have already begun in earnest elsewhere in the West. Commentator Michelle Malkin says the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs, which burned this month across 18,000 acres and forced the evacuation of 32,000 people, is partly the result of environmentalists blocking timber sales and thinning projects over the years.

Local, state, and federal officials offered effusive praise for my fellow Colorado Springs residents who engaged in preventive mitigation efforts in their neighborhoods. The government flacks said it made a life-and-death difference. Yet litigious environmental groups have sabotaged such mitigation efforts at the national level — in effect, creating an explosive tinderbox out of the West.

Paul Fattig at the Medford Mail Tribune this week took a look at the landscape in Southern Oregon ten years after the Biscuit Fire, which was the largest forest fire in Oregon in more than a century. In some ways the recovery has been swift – the wildlife is back and 6-foot conifers, flowers and bear grass have sprouted up. But a deeper recovery will take much longer.

(Lee Webb, biologist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest,) figures it will be at least a century before the old-growth forest returns.

“Some of these big trees were probably a hundred to a couple of hundred years old when the fire came,” he said. “It will take awhile before they are the size of the big ones that burned in 2002.

“It will be the 22nd century when people finally come here and think this is what it probably looked like before Biscuit,” he said.