On the west side of the Cascades, where people welcome the dry, hot summer weather that offers a brief respite from an otherwise soggy climate, it’s difficult to comprehend the seasonal fear that hovers over most of Eastern Washington. To those on the other side of the mountains, summer means tinder-dry forests dense with trees and carpeted with dead and dying combustible material that could ignite instantly into a devastating wildfire, destroying homes and livelihoods.
The state spent more than $30 million fighting forest fires in 2012, and the total rises to nearly $70 million when combined with other local and federal agencies. It was a particularly bad year, but a decline in preventive forest practices since 1990 has created increasingly hazardous conditions for wildfires to burn hotter and grow larger.
Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands, is trying to upgrade forest management practices to keep pace with forest growth and the long-term effects of climate change. It’s a shame that the Legislature and the U.S. Forest Service are independently thwarting his efforts.
The state Department of Natural Resources, which Goldmark manages, initially requested $20 million this year from the Legislature for restorative forest health programs. The DNR later pared its request down to $10 million, and legislators only appropriated $4 million.
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That small amount won’t go far and represents the short-term thinking Goldmark is trying to change. With climatologists predicting the Northwest will warm faster than other regions over the next 40 or more years, the forest fire threat will increase.
The DNR is responsible for forests on about 30 percent of the state’s total landscape. About half of that is state land on which the agency can apply healthy forest management practices, such as thinning trees to provide wider spacing, removing decaying material on the forest floor that fuel fires and making forests more resistant to insect damage.
But it needs funding to provide education and incentives, such as a 50 percent cost-sharing program to encourage private landowners to fire proof their properties. Reducing the potential for large forest fires costs far less than suppressing a fire once it’s started.
Fires that start on private or federal land can quickly spread to state-managed forests. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in Washington and 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 in Washington’s forests.
While the DNR is not enthusiastic about helping the federal forest service do its work, it’s necessary to help protect state land and minimize potential fire suppression costs for Washington taxpayers.
It’s a fact that forest fires have a devastating financial impact on the state economy, beyond the direct costs of fire fighting. 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.
Fighting fires is expensive, and often represents a failure to maintain a healthy forest. The Legislature must invest heavily in long-term restorative forest management practices during its 2014 session to meet this growing wildfire threat.