It’s vital to take steps against future wildfire threat

Last summer was an anomaly when it came to wildfires in Washington. It may also have been a peek at the future.

Fires ravaged more than 410,000 acres last summer, compared to the average of 60,000 acres during the previous five years. One fire alone, the Carlton Complex, burnt about 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties.

Experts are projecting that the anomaly could look a lot like the norm as climate change creates warmer, dryer conditions in the years ahead. Unless more is done to make Washington’s forests less vulnerable to fire, the annual number of acres burned is expected to nearly double by the 2020s, according to a report Sunday by The News Tribune’s Melissa Santos.

That’s why the state Department of Natural Resources is asking lawmakers for $20 million in the next biennium to reduce forest hazards – five times what it was budgeted for that work in the current biennium. The Legislature goes into session on Monday.

Not all wildfires can be prevented; most of last year’s were caused by lightning strikes. But often they can be less destructive and far-ranging if the forests have been managed in a way to minimize fire threat.

That means thinning trees, planting species that are more resistant to fire and insects, and clearing out underbrush that serves as kindling to forest canopies.

Those measures aren’t cheap, which is why so much forest land in the state is considered vulnerable. An estimated 30 percent of Eastern Washington’s forests – about 2.7 million acres – need restoration work, but only about 140,000 acres per year get it.

Not only state lands are at risk. In fact, state-managed land accounts for only about 10 percent of the unhealthy forest acreage. The rest is managed by the federal government (43 percent), private landowners (31 percent) and tribes (14 percent). Clearly, having those stakeholders on board is crucial to reducing wildfire hazards.

Given the pressure legislators will be under to meet the education funding mandate of the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, other funding priorities are likely to take a back seat.

Paying for prevention efforts is never an easy sell even in the best of times. It’s not being done at the federal level either; due to congressional inaction, the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to redirect money from its prevention programs into fighting wildfires throughout the West.

Even if the DNR doesn’t get all the funding it seeks, other measures can help reduce wildfire risks. Property owners themselves can do much to make their homes less vulnerable to destruction by by creating a "defensible space" relatively clear of trees and shrubs for about 30 feet around structures. They can work with the DNR, which offers a grant program to pay for half the cost of thinning and chipping trees on their property.

And state officials should act to speed up investment in biofuel technology, which would create a market for forest waste products that result from fire hazard mitigation efforts.

Defraying some of the cost could go a long way toward helping property owners take important fire safety steps. That will be useful even if future years don’t bring the devastation of 2014.