Washington’s raging wildfires are a cause for reform


Washington state officials recently confirmed what many people suspected: this is the worst drought in the state’s modern history.

“We have never experienced a drought like this,”  said Maia Bellon, director of the state Department of Ecology. “It is remarkably worse than the drought of 2005 or 2001… and there is no end in sight.”

The Methow Valley News put the misery in bullet points:

  • Almost 99 percent of the state is classified as being in a “severe drought.”
  • Eighty sturgeon, from 5 to 7 feet long — including breeding females — have been found dead along the Columbia River.
  • Typically wet forests on the Olympic Peninsula are burning, with the largest fire on record in Olympic National Park this summer.
  • Every county in the state is predicted to qualify for federal disaster relief.
  • At least 30 irrigators have been ordered to shut their diversions.

And the wildfires, as we noted earlier this month, are already off to the races.

“Wildfire season started early and energetically,” said Mary Verner, deputy supervisor of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As of July 17, there had been 747 fires that burned almost 74,000 acres. This week brush fires near Quincy and Monroe have increased the total.

The 74,000 acres is more than twice the area burned by mid-July last year (not counting the Carlton Complex Fire, which had just started), said Verner.

The increasing wildfires around the state are getting more Eastern Washington forest homeowners to make their properties safer by thinning forests and brush, the Seattle Times notes.

With both couples (the Kellys and Brutons) leading about 40 property owners, the Chiliwist area in 2013 was the first in Okanogan County to become a Firewise community, which means it had sought out training and advice about how to be prepared for fire.

Both the Kellys and Brutons have outfitted their homes to Firewise specifications.

For example: “Kelly’s Outpost” features a composite deck less likely to burn. Twice the couple had their 80 acres logged and thinned. Wire mesh covers any open areas where debris like pine needles could settle. They have a metal roof.

The couple has meticulously groomed the trees around the house to 12 feet, so their branches couldn’t be licked by a fire on the ground.

“Well, if you want to keep it, you’ve got to take care of it,” Noble Kelly said.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said in an op-ed this week that the rampant wildfires are another reason that Congress should approve federal forest reform. The U.S. House earlier this month passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act to increase active management of our federal forests and in turn, to cut down on the risk of large wildfires. Democrats and President Obama oppose the bill but its passage still suggests hope of a compromise measure to increase the federal timber harvest.

McMorris Rodgers wrote in her op-ed this week that Washington is a heavily forested state that can’t afford the increasing wildfires.

When the Evergreen State goes up in smoke, it doesn’t bode well for anyone.

Roughly one-quarter of the world’s forest products come from the United States. The damage from even a small-scale forest fire does considerable harm to our local businesses and our state’s competitiveness nationally and around the world.

Timber production on federal land has declined by 90 percent since 1989, leading to mill closures and job loss. Here in Eastern Washington, we’ve missed out on millions of dollars in economic opportunity.

We have every reason to be concerned – especially with wildfire season upon us.

…Last week, I voted for HR 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. This bipartisan legislation incorporates the best combined ideas from my (earlier) bill, which calls for the Forest Service, local leaders, and private companies to work together to expedite environmental review.

This bill will modernize the contract approval process so the Forest Service has the tools it needs to quickly remove dead trees and to effectively manage forests in Eastern Washington and across the country.

It also modernizes the way we pay to fight catastrophic wildfires. Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will cover additional costs, allowing Forest Service funds to be properly spent on forest management. Finally, this bill strengthens the Secure Rural Schools program, a continued priority for me.

It’s now time for the Senate to pass this bill and the president to sign it into law. We must preserve our forests – for our economy, environment, enjoyment and safety – for generations to come.