A few short months from now, federal and state foresters around the West will purposely set controlled burns to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires later. This is a regular practice in Oregon, Idaho and California, but much less common in Washington state.
Land managers in Idaho fight fire with fire nearly twice or three times as often as in neighboring Washington. And that's small potatoes compared to Oregon, which has seen way more acreage purposely burned than any of its neighbors on average over the past six years.
The point of prescribed burns is to reduce fuel loads with a controlled, low-intensity fire. State Senator Linda Evans Parlette, who represents wildfire ravaged north central Washington, acknowledges that creates smoke.
"I have to tell you, I say (to that), 'How do we want our smoke?’" Parlette said.
Do you want it in small batches in spring and fall or a smothering blanket for 30 straight days at the height of the summer tourist season?
"The huge economic impact of the fires and the smoke and so forth, we are still not recovered from,” Parlette added.
The Wenatchee Republican said she's uncertain why Washington lags far behind other Western states on this wildfire control strategy. She's pushing several bills that focus on changing policy at Washington's Department of Natural Resources to maximize burn days.
In Washington state, a prescribed burn requires a permit from DNR.
"We approve about 85 percent of the time," Wildfire Division Assistant Manager Karen Arnold said in an interview with public radio.
A recent report commissioned by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils identified three top impediments nationally standing in the way of increased controlled burning:
- Weather, such as drought and narrow burn windows
- Capacity issues, such as limited personnel, training or equipment to manage controlled burns
- Smoke complaints, which can be because drifting smoke is a nuisance or because it represents a serious air quality violation.
On Wednesday, the Washington Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee considered a raft of fire policy changes. One provision sponsored by Parlette would limit the discretion of state forest wardens to refuse or revoke a burn permit unless "there is clear evidence of an impending violation of air quality standards... or an imminent threat to public health and safety."
A second statute change aims to shift state policy to explicitly support "mechanical thinning and prescribed burning when appropriate for forest health improvement and fire prevention."
A representative for two timber mill owners in northeast Washington offered a caution while endorsing the increased use of controlled burns.
"The fuel loads in many of those state and federal forests are so heavy that prescribed burns may need to follow mechanical treatments," lobbyist Tim Boyd said. That was another way of saying the woods may need to be thinned first by workers with power tools.
"The advantage of that in our mind is that there is merchantable timber that can help feed fiber-starved mills," Boyd elaborated in testimony to the state Senate committee. "It will also reduce the amount of smoke and emissions that will come from the prescribed burns once we have removed some of that understory."