Washington wildfires were bad before. We fixed it then. We can do it again.

Don Wilbur of University Place.
Don Wilbur of University Place. Courtesy photo

In 1902, the forest fire smoke was so dense in Washington, the chickens on the Olympic Peninsula’s Hoh River roosted, thinking it was night.

The Yacolt fire burned 238,000 acres and was most horrific; however there were numerous fires in Washington and Oregon burning out of control at the same time. The Puget Sound was inundated with smoke, and forests were destroyed.

State and federal bureaucrats were not alarmed, but Washington citizens were outraged and demanded action. Over time the state Legislature, federal government and the people joined together to reduce the fires.

Fire control became a prime environmental issue. The issue was vital to people’s health as well as the state’s economy.

In a few years the state, federal and private forest landowners came together to manage Washington forests, and the fires were almost put out relative to what had burned in 1902.

Today, our forest fires are beginning to approach the size of those Washington fires that burned more than a century ago. The bureaucrats blame global warming and bad forest health.

Those of us who were born near the forest and later worked there believe the additional fires and deteriorating forest health have occurred because the bureaucrats changed forest policy and use for the worse.

The first step to positive change a hundred years ago was policy: All fires were immediately identified and attacked with all resources in the vicinity.

Landowners made fire plans, fire suppression crews were put in place, fire patrolmen were given authority to correct deficiencies, firefighting equipment was cached for immediate use and lookouts were established on a grid to cover the entire state.

When practical, primitive roads and trails were constructed in undeveloped forests to provide access for fire crews. Snags (big dead trees) were felled where accessible, eliminating highly flammable lightning rods.

The public was well informed of fire. The forest was harvested for wood products and jobs for the community and the nation. There was a strong effort to renew and protect the forest after logging and catastrophes. Landowners were proud stewards of the forest.

The harvested forest usually resulted in a closed canopy of old trees more than 100 feet tall, which shielded the ground and limited vegetation on the forest floor.

In the early days timber harvest units were located partially so that the adjacent forest would seed them. Controlled burning on these units would furnish a vital seed bed and eliminate the fire fuel, known as logging slash.

Later, as technology and finances improved, the timber units were replanted soon after harvest. Forest stewardship motivated landowners to get seedling trees growing immediately.

The resulting tree canopy closure was good for environmental reasons, fire protection and aesthetics – the beauty of a healthy forest.

Today, private landowners continue to follow past practices and have created forests of health that are relatively fireproof; meanwhile, federal lands are generally roadless and fires are not always actively attacked.

Last year the U.S. Forest Service’s Norse Peak fire near Crystal Mountain was 55,909 acres, which left thousands of dead, dry trees standing. Fire history suggests this area will burn again and again.

The bureaucrat’s plan is to study the dead forest. An academic projects a new forest in three decades.

But consider one private landowner’s forest that was destroyed by the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. The dead trees were logged or burned by the owner, and millions of trees were planted almost immediately. Today there’s a green, healthy forest.

Unless the stewardship practices of private land owners is adopted by all land owners, we can expect choking summer smoke and extensive dead forests for years to come.

Don Wilbur of University Place is a regular News Tribune letter writer. He spent 40 years as a professional forester in Washington, Oregon and Arkansas after earning his forestry degree at the University of Washington.