Two reasons to hope western wildfires can be tamed

Firefighters on several fronts fought against the 2015 wildfires that threatened homes in the north-central part of Washington state.
Firefighters on several fronts fought against the 2015 wildfires that threatened homes in the north-central part of Washington state. AP file photo

Critics accuse the Trump administration of trying to muzzle climate-related dialogue at the International Fire Congress later this month; indeed, no U.S. climate change researcher has been permitted to talk at the annual meeting on wildfire suppression. A Forest Service scientist was scheduled to speak but was denied approval last week.

And yet there’s no denying climate change is lengthening wildfire season in western states, especially in places like rain-deprived Eastern Washington, where millions of acres of densely packed forests have turned to kindling.

Just a few months ago, the Norse Peak fire, which threatened Crystal Mountain Resort and surrounding communities, showed how emerging wildfire risks can disrupt our way of life in Pierce County.

On the heels of another historic wildfire season, two new blueprints for fire prevention give us hope.

The first is the state’s 20-year forest health strategic plan introduced last week by Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. The second is a piece of bipartisan, three-state legislation co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

The state’s 20-year plan begins with improving the health of 10 million acres of Washington forests east of the Cascade Range. It was prompted by unanimous votes in the state Legislature this year.

The five-phase approach combats insects and disease, which should help in the elimination of layers of dry and dead debris piling up on forest floors. State trust lands and private forests will be subject to prescribed burns and increased production in timber. Environmentalists don’t always like to hear this, but harvesting sick and overgrown forests isn’t just potentially profitable; it makes them more resistant to wildfire.

Meanwhile, depletion of the Forest Service’s fire budget should alarm us all. To keep up with historic blazes raging throughout the West, the agency has had to grab from accounts dedicated to fire prevention and long-term forest management. The result is a vicious cycle of devastation.

It’s why Cantwell took to Twitter last week and urged support for a bill she co-sponsored with fellow senators from Oregon and Idaho.

The bipartisan legislation narrowly targets fire-prone lands in what the feds call the wildlife-urban interface: the 1 percent of federal lands closest to communities and water supplies. If passed, the $100 million would go a long way in preparing at-risk communities for wildfires.

If Cantwell’s colleagues hesitate, we suggest they review last summer’s news. Northern California’s wildfires killed 42 people. California Gov. Jerry Brown called it one of the greatest tragedies his state ever faced.

It took more than 11,000 firefighters working up to 80 hours straight to contain the deadly blaze. In the end, more than 8,400 structures burned and the monetary loss was estimated at more than $1 billion.

Our state hasn’t seen that scale of catastrophe, but in 2015, more than 1,500 wildfires raged across one million acres in Washington and destroyed 230 homes.

Those fires were the second-largest carbon emitter that year and cost taxpayers $89 million. And that’s not counting consequences more difficult to measure, such as impacts on wildlife habitat, tourism and rural economic development.

We hope Cantwell’s colleagues in Congress recognize the bill for what it is, a rare piece of legislation where everyone can check off a win.

Many Republicans will appreciate the ease with which timber companies will be able to clear brush and harvest trees in targeted areas without the usual demanding environmental reviews. Many Democrats will favor the priority placed on ecological health.

Wildfires are getting larger and more expensive to fight. By 2050, the Forest Service predicts they could burn twice as many acres as in 2015.

The time for blowing smoke over climate change and other partisan flashpoints is past. The time for sound policy on wildfire suppression is now.