Goal is to reduce forest fires and related damage

By Ann McCreary

In the wake of two consecutive years of devastating wildfires in her legislative district, State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (12th District, R-Wenatchee) has introduced two bills that call for expanding prescribed burning to reduce the risk of wildfire in eastern Washington’s forests, and conducting prescribed burning this year around vulnerable communities.

The bills were scheduled for public hearing Wednesday (Feb. 3) in the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

“State law implies that prescribed fire should be a last resort,” Parlette said. “Considering how wildfire devastated families and employers and communities in our region in 2012, 2014 and again this past year, I am ready to move prescribed fire to the center of a new long-term strategy for hopefully reducing forest wildfires and restoring the health of our forestlands.”

In researching the issue, Parlette said, she was told by Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Supervisor Mike Williams that “Washington state does way less prescribed burns than Oregon, Idaho and other states.”

SB 6510 would amend and update the state’s smoke management plan to allow for more prescribed burn opportunities.

Among other provisions, the bill would significantly increase the amount of material that could be burned in prescribed burns in areas near communities or prone to inversions.

It calls for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which administers smoke management regulations in Washington, to authorize prescribed burns 24 hours in advance, rather than requiring a prescribed burn manager to call in the morning on the day of a planned burn for permission to proceed.

That would be a big help to people responsible for planning prescribed burns, said Meg Trebon, a fire management officer with the Methow Valley Ranger District.

“I may have 15 to 40 people and a helicopter and crew staged out on a burn, waiting for smoke approval, then we may find out we don’t get that approval,” Trebon said.

“This will allow us to plan more effectively and be more successful,” she said. The bill provides that approval is subject to change if conditions change and pose a threat to public health or violate air quality standards.

More burning days

The bill would also allow prescribed burning on days when DNR would otherwise deny burning, if denying a permit to burn would threaten “imminent and substantial economic loss.”

Additionally, DNR could not deny a prescribed burn based only on potential smoke intrusions into communities, unless the smoke would pose a threat to public health or violate air quality standards, according to language in the bill.

“We frequently get denials because of smoke intrusion into a community,” Trebon said. “Smoke cools and settles and drifts down drainage. The nighttime smoke settling is often more a barrier than it should be.”

Trebon said the state’s smoke management process needs updating “to recognize the current forest conditions and the need to use prescribed fire as a tool … to create [wildfire] suppression opportunities and minimize the fuels that are out there to burn.”

Parlette’s second bill, SB 6511, calls for long-term forest health planning, as well as immediate action to conduct burning near vulnerable communities.

The bill directs DNR to identify public and private lands that could threaten communities in case of wildfire and treat all state lands by June 30, 2016, that can be treated by prescribed fire or other “simple methods,” according to a summary of the bill.

The measure sets a Nov. 30 deadline to treat other land protected by DNR that can be treated by prescribed fire or other simple method in cooperation with willing landowners under cost-sharing and maintenance agreements.

It sets a Dec. 31 deadline for DNR to report on progress, barriers and plans to treat lands outside DNR fire protection and recommendations for additional resources or legislative action to treat all lands identified.

“These are rather aggressive dates to start off, in the end they will probably be modified,” Parlette said. “We’ve got to have a plan to do something right away.”

Her bill also calls for development of a 20-year plan for restoring forest health.

“This bill is a broader, more policy-related approach for fire prevention,” Parlette said. “All available fire-prevention techniques would be on the table, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire.” The bill has bipartisan sponsorship, she said.

It calls for developing plans to treat 2.7 million acres of forest lands in eastern Washington identified by DNR as being in poor health condition, and updating the plan at least every two years.

DNR “shall encourage more intense utilization in logging and alternative silviculture practices and encourage mechanical thinning and prescribed burning when appropriate for forest health improvement and fire prevention,” the proposed legislation states.

Choose your smoke

It also provides for creating a “prescribed burn manager certification program” for people who practice prescribed burning that includes training in legal requirements, safety, weather, fire behavior, smoke management, prescribed fire techniques, public relations, planning and contingencies.

The measure would also restrict the ability of DNR or other officials to revoke or postpone the use of burn permits except in situations when there is clear evidence the proposed burn would violate air quality standards or pose an imminent threat to public health and safety.

The idea behind her proposed legislation is “fighting fire with fire,” said Parlette, whose lakeside cabin was among dozens burned last summer in wildfires around Lake Chelan.

“Out of 10 million acres of forestland east of the Cascades, nearly 2.72 million acres are at high risk of damage from disease, insects and wildfire. Rather than wait for fires to ignite … I want to be proactive about restoring the health of our forests and protecting families and employers from more of the hurt we have seen in 2012, 2014 and this past year,” Parlette said.

“My question to people who hesitate at the idea of more prescribed fire is this: How do you want your smoke?” Parlette said.

“We can have it in periodic batches that are limited in length, with prescribed fire, or endure 30 straight days of smoke, as the out-of-control wildfires have brought in three of the past four years. To me it’s a clear choice,” she said.