DNR to work with other agencies on pilot projects

By Ann McCreary

Legislation aimed at increasing the use of prescribed fire as a tool to prevent catastrophic wildfires was signed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The legislation directs the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to conduct a pilot project of “forest resiliency burning” in forests east of the Cascade Mountains in coordination with other agencies, and to evaluate the effectiveness of prescribed burning and the impacts on air quality.

The law requires DNR, which approves burn permits and enforces rules that limit smoke drifting into communities during controlled burns, to report findings from the project to the Legislature by 2018. The report must include recommendations on continuing or expanding prescribed burning in Washington.

Prescribed burns are intentionally set fires designed to burn at low intensity to reduce fuels and the threat of catastrophic wildfires. Prescribed fire mimics the natural cycle of wildfire that has been interrupted by decades of fire suppression.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he introduced the bill in response to devastating wildfires that swept across Okanogan County during the past two summers.

“After the worst fire season on record in Okanogan County, I knew we needed to act this session to bring forward legislation to improve our forest health and reduce our risk of further catastrophic wildfires,” Kretz said.

“What most people don’t realize is that fire is essential for the natural health of our forests. Forest resiliency burning is good land management in conjunction with proper thinning methods,” he said.

The law aims to ensure that air quality restrictions placed on outdoor burning do not impede the use of prescribed burning to improve forest resiliency, Kretz said.

The legislation was supported by The Nature Conservancy and a coalition that included firefighters, timber companies and natural resource managers.

“The pilot project mandates different groups … working with prescribed burners, to look at what are the barriers and concerns in using more prescribed fire,” said Reese Lolley, director of forest restoration and fire for The Nature Conservancy, and chair of the Washington Prescribed Fire Council.

Attitude shift

For advocates of prescribed burning, the legislation reflects a shift in attitude about prescribed fire, which has been controversial due to public resentment of the smoke it creates.

“We’ve got the whole state rethinking how we live with fire and how we live in a place that burns,” said Lolley. “We’re going to see fire in the future. What are additional strategies as we move forward? Clearly suppression is a strategy that has been effective in the past, but we’re starting to get lapped.”

The legislation requires DNR to conduct forest resiliency burning — prescribed fires — on land prone to wildland fire. DNR must coordinate the pilot projects with three Washington forest health collaboratives — the North Central (which includes the Methow Valley), Northeast and Tapash.

Forest health collaboratives bring together groups that are interested in regional forest restoration efforts, such as conservation, timber and tribal organizations, elected officials and land management agencies.

Working with the forest health collaboratives, Lolley said, “helps us to understand regional differences and make recommendations to the Legislature and to the agencies about lessons learned and how we can improve upon and better use prescribed fire.”

“This bill was very focused on how we can get some work done very quickly on the ground,” said Tom Bugert, state legislative director for The Nature Conservancy.

“There are 2.7 million acres of forests east of the Cascades that need some kind of restorative treatment,” Bugert said. “It’s taken us about 100 years to get into this mess. We’re not going to fix it overnight, but we need to start trying immediately.”

The first burn projects will probably take place in the fall, with at least one prescribed burning project in each of the three forest health collaborative regions, he said.

The Legislature appropriated $800,000 for DNR to carry out the pilot projects that will be proposed by the forest health collaboratives, he said. “There are a number of projects ready to go,” he said.

Washington state conducts considerably less prescribed burning than neighboring states, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2015, Washington conducted prescribed burning on 7,062 acres, compared to 26,268 acres in Idaho and 87,973 acres in Oregon.

As part of the pilot project, DNR must approve single-day or multiple-day prescribed burning if the fires don’t “significantly contribute” to violations or air quality standards. DNR cannot revoke or postpone approved burns unless necessary “for the safety of adjacent property” or if the burn significantly violates air quality standards.

Better communication

Lolley said communicating with local communities about when and where prescribed burns are happening and about air quality impacts plays an important part in successfully increasing the use of prescribed fire.

The prescribed burning conducted under the pilot project is not subject to outdoor burning restrictions, and DNR must approve burns at least 24 hours prior to ignition, rather than on the same day as is currently done.

“The whole idea is to maximize opportunities to burn,” said Dale Swedberg, prescribed burn program manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in Okanogan County. “We are missing opportunities because we’re not getting smoke approval [from DNR] in Olympia.”

He said the model used by DNR to predict smoke intrusion into communities doesn’t always reflect what is happening in the field.

“There may be some discrepancies in what the model is showing and what is actually on the ground,” he said.

He welcomed a provision in the bill that requires DNR to conduct a “comparative analysis between the predicted smoke conditions and the actual smoke conditions observed on location … during the forest resiliency burn.”

Swedberg said allowing prescribed burns even during declared burn bans can increase opportunities without increasing risk.

“When a statewide burn ban is imposed it’s as if conditions are the same throughout the state, and that’s not the case. There are different conditions on south slopes than north slopes, different fuel types, aspects and conditions. A burn ban should be based upon local conditions,” he said.

The “prescription” for prescribed fire provides very specific objectives to be achieved through the fire, and one of those objectives is restricting the fire to the area to be treated.

“You want the fire to be where you want it to be,” Swedberg said.

WDFW and the U.S. Forest Service have plans drawn up for prescribed burns, and in some cases have burn permits in hand, he said.

Swedberg, who describes himself as “a passionate prescribed fire proponent,” sees the legislation as “one step toward making it a more realistic tool. I think the attitudes are changing.”

“We saw in the last two years where prescribed fire helped firefighters” manage wildfire in areas that had been previously treated, Lolley said. “With those examples out here, there’s some eagerness about understanding how to use that tool better.”

Parlette: legislation creates ‘opportunity for accountability’

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who sponsored two bills to increase use of prescribed burning in Washington, said she “is philosophical” about the fate of those and other wildfire-related bills introduced during this year’s legislative session.

Her bills called for development of a 20-year forest health strategic plan, and an update of the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) smoke management plan. Both bills promoted using prescribed burning to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

They were among more than 20 bills introduced during the last legislative session to address various aspects of wildfire prevention and management. Parlette was asked to collect them into a larger bill called the Wildfire Management Act that included the “best of the wildfire policy changes proposed this year,” she said.

“There wasn’t enough money to fund the … bill” and the legislation was sidelined, she said.

Parlette said she is interested in seeing the result of the pilot projects that DNR will conduct under the prescribed fire legislation that was signed into law. “This is an opportunity for accountability,” she said.

Parlette’s bills “launched the discussion about what we are going to do with our forests,” said Tom Bugert, state legislative director for The Nature Conservancy, which supports increased use of prescribed burning to decrease the risk of extreme wildfires.

“We will have to come back in 2017 and have a longer-term discussion,” Bugert said.