After decades of almost reflexive suppression of wildfires, land managers increasingly are turning to controlled burns, especially in forests. When done under proper weather conditions and oversight, the practice eliminates underbrush that could burn destructively in an out-of-control fire. Prescribed burning also helps some coniferous trees that require heat from fire to open cones and disperse seeds.
But it does come with caveats. Occasionally, a burn gets out of control with catastrophic results; in 2000, a prescribed New Mexico burn, which was designed to cover 900 acres, raced through 40,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes. More frequently, smoke from the burns can create air-quality issues that affect populated areas.
All of these are concerns in Central Washington, which is fire country during the summer and early fall. Last season saw the most destructive fire season in modern history, and it prompted the Washington Legislature to act. In the just-completed session, lawmakers directed the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a pilot project that will evaluate the benefits of controlled burns.
Out of concern about smoke drifting into populated areas, DNR had stopped conducting burns on its lands, and it had enforced strict rules that limit the scope of burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and other entities. With the mix of state, federal and private landholdings in the state’s forests, the DNR’s practice served to limit the practice throughout the state. The Seattle Times reported that from 2002-14, the Forest Service oversaw controlled burns on 132,000 acres in Washington, a figure that was less than half that of Idaho and one-fifth that of Oregon.
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The impetus for the new law came from a legislator who represents Okanogan County, which endured especially destructive wildfires in the past two years. Under the legislation, the DNR will contract with groups to conduct the burns and then prepare a report to the Legislature by December 2018. The new law also directs the department to approve single-day or multiple-day permits if weather conditions indicate that air-quality violations will be limited.
The success of this program hinges on DNR conducting its due diligence and working with weather forecasters to avoid smoke drifting into cities and towns — and to avert a fire that blows up out of control. While forecasting is a science, there are days when Mother Nature can fool humans who employ even the best equipment and forecasting skills. That means a smoke-free summer is not guaranteed.
But the trade-off is the prevention of further destruction, especially in forests east of the Cascades. In the long term, the practice can pay off; in the short term, those living, working and playing in Central Washington may have to be alert and patient as this pilot program progresses.