SPOKANE — The state on Wednesday issued a 20-year-plan to reduce the number of wildfires and improve the health of 1.25 million acres of forest land in eastern Washington.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz released the plan at a press conference in Cle Elum, near the site of last summer’s Jolly Mountain Fire, a lightning-caused blaze that burned 57.5 square miles of land.
Franz said the plan is necessary to break the cycle of destructive wildfires that plague the region east of the Cascade Range each year.
“If we fail to do this work, we face formidable wildfire seasons in an increasingly difficult climate,” Franz said. “Improving the health of our forests will reduce risk to lives, communities, livelihoods, water supplies and essential forest ecosystems.”
The plan was put together by 56 representatives from 33 agencies and organizations, Franz said.
It involves a combination of forest restoration work to combat insects and disease, and prescribed burns in a large swath of Eastern Washington, which receives much less rain and is much drier than the western part of the state.
The plan includes strategies to develop products from the waste generated by thinning sick and overgrown forests, Franz said. That will improve forest health and local economies, she said.
Forest health has declined across the West for several decades, the plan said. That’s in part due to the aggressive stamping out of wildfires that has led to overgrown forests. Regular droughts have also weakened trees, the plan said.
“These densely packed and moisture-stressed forests have become less resistant to wildfires and insects and disease outbreaks,” the plan said.
The 10 million acres of forest land in eastern Washington face serious health threats, the plan said.
The plan said that in 2015 more than 1,500 wildfires burned over 1 million acres and destroyed 230 homes during a record-breaking fire season. Yet the state may see four times the acreage burned annually by the 2080s, the plan said.
The state Legislature provided funding to develop the 20-year plan, because wildfires are getting larger and more expensive to fight.
“Forest health, wildfire risk, and rural economic development are inextricably linked in eastern Washington,” the plan said.
The plan concluded that:
—Forest health can be improved, but that will take several decades.
—Wildfires will continue to be a “major disturbance of eastern Washington forests.”
—Management will likely decrease the incidence of insect-related forest mortality.
—Timber production might increase substantially, but mostly in small-diameter trees.