Wildfires burning through Central Washington have destroyed more than 150 houses and forced other families to evacuate. One man has died from a heart attack while trying to save his home.
It’s a grim reminder that the Northwest is vulnerable to devastating natural disasters. And the driest, most dangerous fire season still lies ahead.
Federal, state and local elected officials can’t control climatic conditions, but they can fully fund restorative forest health programs and mandate Community Wildfire Protection Plans to prevent forest fires and minimize the social and economic impact when they do occur.
The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in the state of Washington, but it has effectively abandoned all active forest management practices since the spotted owl controversy in the 1990s. This has created a dangerous excess of wildfire fuel on federally managed land in our state’s forests.
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This intentional inaction by the U.S. Forest Service has placed an undue burden on the state Department of Natural Resources to use its precious resources doing restorative work on federal land. Meanwhile, the state Legislature has slashed DNR funding to upgrade forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth on its own land.
It’s a fool’s game, because taxpayers ultimately pay for unhealthy forests through fire suppression costs, and the loss of jobs and property. The state spends tens of millions annually to fight fires, and that amount doubles when the cost to local governments is added.
The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition has estimated that the cost of rebuilding homes, lost business and tax revenue and reduced property values can run up to 30 times the cost of fire suppression alone.
On state land, DNR thins trees to provide wider spacing, removes decaying material on the forest floor that fuels fires and works to make forests more resistant to insect damage. But it can’t keep up, let alone help the federal Forest Service.
The state agency must also fund educate private landowners, and provide them with incentives to fire proof their properties. Fires that start on private or federal lands can jump quickly to state-managed forests.
Local governments also have a role to play in improved protection from forest fires. But few South Sound jurisdictions have stepped up to the challenge.
Many communities around the state have developed Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP). A CWPP instructs homeowners living in the wildland-urban interface how to create defensible space around their buildings with fire resistant landscaping.
No communities in Thurston, Lewis or Grays Harbor counties have a CWPP registered with the state Department of Natural Resources. Mason County has an overall plan, and a separate CWPP for the Lake Cushman area.
As our planet becomes hotter and drier, it becomes more important to maintain healthy forests. Fighting wildfires is expensive. But lawmakers can mitigate that cost by investing more in long-term restorative forest management practices.