Wildfire legislation moves in Washington Legislature


Wildfire prevention is a big topic in Olympia right now. We wrote recently about the state Department of Natural Resources’ request for $20 million over two years to thin forests and protect them from fires, and while that’s still under debate, the Legislature is also considering several bills that would give more power to local residents to fight wildfires on state land.

The legislation came about as some Central Washington leaders and landowners testified to a House committee about the impact of last year’s Carlton Complex Fire, which burned 256,000 acres.

The bills will likely be combined into one piece of legislation, and are not without opponents.

House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, said after the hearing he wants to combine policy changes that have a chance of passing into a single bill.

Legislation may run into opposition from DNR and the union representing DNR employees. Department and union representatives told the committee they will work on legislation, but did not support the bills (Reps. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and Shelly Short, R-Addy) introduced.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that letting landowners take the initiative will result in lawsuits or amateurish actions that make fires worse.

Okanogan County rancher Vic Stokes assured lawmakers that landowners have experience battling blazes.

“We’re quite capable of fighting fires,” he said. “The knowledge is passed on from generation to generation.”

Reporters from EarthFix, a coalition of Northwest public radio and TV reporters, recently went to the site of the Carlton Complex Fire, as well as Yakima, to illustrate the importance of forest thinning on protecting the landscape from fires.

Outside of Yakima, The Nature Conservancy is thinning forests that have not yet seen snowfall this year. Crews create gaps in the dense forest by cutting down smaller trees.

Scraps of thinned trees have been piled and dried for more than a year. Now it’s time to set them on fire.

That’s Matt Dahlgreen’s job. He’s worked to thin these forests for most of his career.

“You just go to the bottom side of the pile and try to find a dry area and light it,” Dahlgreen said, pointing to a brush pile.

Thinning forests reduces the amount of fuel. This could help prevent explosive wildfires.

“We are trying to concentrate the growth on a few trees, so these few trees will get large and become more fire resistant and better wildlife habitat over time,” Dahlgreen said.

Reese Lolley, the Eastern Washington forest program director for The Nature Conservancy, said the emphasis on fire suppression in the last century helped create the conditions that have lead to more extreme fires.

“The current condition of our forests, with trees that are smaller and at a higher density, creates situations where now the forest is less resilient,” Lolley said.

Federal and state leaders know that forest thinning works.

Morris Johnson, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, analyzes landscapes after wildfires strike. He tries to measure the effectiveness of forest thinning and prescribed burns.

Johnson pulls up a photo on his computer from the 2011 Wallow Fire, the biggest in Arizona’s recorded history. He said the photo clearly shows how thinned forests helped stop a fire before it reached homes.

“You can see as it hit the thinning treatment there’s a transition in the fire type,” Johnson said. “It went from an active crown fire down to a passive crown fire, and then … it allowed the firefighters to basically protect these homes by doing spot protection.”

A peer-reviewed study by The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service recently found this type of work needs to happen on 9.5 million acres of forest in Washington and Oregon.

Because the Carlton Complex was so extreme, almost half of the previously thinned areas burned completely. But in some critical areas, researchers found thinning did make a difference. One of those areas is known as the “doughnut hole,” a 12,000-acre patch of land untouched in the center of this summers’ burned landscape.

Meg Trebon, a fire management officer for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, saw firsthand how the treated areas within the “doughnut hole” slowed down the Carlton Complex fire, giving firefighters a safer place from which to fight the flames.

But much more needs to be done.

“We need to think differently on how we’re managing these forests moving into the next century, and how we can live with fire in a way that can benefit forests, benefit people, water, and wildlife,” (said Lolley of the Nature Conservancy).