Commentary: Wildfire no longer just an east-of-Cascades worry

Western Washington faces greater threats from wildfires and smoke. Better forest management can help.

By Tom Dent

For The Herald

In June, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle about wildfire and its impacts on communities. Until the last few years, it wasn’t an issue on the minds of urban cities west of the Cascades.

Wildfire once was considered an Eastern Washington matter. But massive blazes in recent years have clearly shown the impacts of forest fire and smoke are no longer isolated to communities to the east. It has become a statewide issue and one that will require us all — state and federal agencies, tribal and local governments, federal and state landowners, timber companies and private forestland owners, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — to protect public health, safety, the environment, wildlife and property.

Wildfire and smoky skies becoming a part of Washington summers have been unsettling. I find it inherently wrong we are allowing our natural resources to burn up.

However, our collective concerns also provide an opportunity to find common ground and work together toward decreasing the severity of wildfires and promoting policies that ensure healthy, resilient forests.

Proper management of our lands and natural resources not only reduce damage from wildfires, but they benefit the environment, economy and the health of our citizens. There are policies and methods of forest and land management we can continue to pursue to limit wildfires.

Prescribed burning is often criticized because it generates smoke. However, in certain areas, we simply need more prescribed burning. It is the most practical way to reduce dangerous accumulation of combustible fuels. Wildfires that burn in areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed fire cause less damage and are much easier to control.

Prescribed burning is done in a controlled environment during cooler and wetter months. It also improves wildlife habitat, controls insects and disease, encourages new growth of native vegetation for the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire, and improves recreation and aesthetic values.

Not only is active forest management beneficial to our environment and natural resources, it is good for the economy. Logs come out of the forest in one of two ways: Either they are harvested to improve the health and resilience of the forest, or they burn to the ground. Responsible logging and thinning provide economic benefits, as well as healthy forests and jobs for our rural economies.

The substantial reduction in logging over the last few decades contributes to the overgrown and poor quality of our forests. We watch wildfires burn every year, and there is always a call to action. Logging and thinning of dead and dying timber from dense, fire-prone areas is an action we must continue to utilize.

Firebreaks eliminate or reduce swaths of fire fuels during a fast-moving range fire. They slow a fire’s progress, reduce flame heights and improve firefighter access. While firebreaks can be created by a strip of mowed or plowed land, grazing is also being utilized. Grazing animals aid in the reduction of fire fuels in grasslands and wildland areas. In fact, a fire district in Wenatchee recently used 300 goats to feast on the vegetation in the Wenatchee Foothills above the Broadview section of the city. Just two years ago, 28 homes were destroyed in this neighborhood when the Sleepy Hollow fire swept through.

Fires seem to be burning hotter and longer than ever before. This scorches and sterilizes the soil, preventing regrowth of trees and plants affecting the habitat and wildlife. At a time when water is so critical, wildfires can also easily damage watersheds. The smoke and emissions wildfires produce release gases and particles that negatively affect air quality. Unmanaged forests and wildlands are simply bad for the environment.

Blazes will always be a part of forestland, but ignoring them is not an option, especially when we have tools and policies available to better manage our forest health and the wildfires themselves. With planning, collaboration and smart policies, we can remove the word “catastrophic” from wildfires.

State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, has represented the 13th Legislative District since 2014. He is a professional pilot and buffalo rancher.

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