Wildfire reforms still needed

This is how persistent wildfires can be: It was only last week — mid-November — that a wildfire in the Olympic National Park’s rainforest, which had been burning since May, was finally extinguished by a series of storms that dropped several feed of rain.

The Paradise fire burned 4 square miles of rainforest in the Queets River drainage, the largest fire in the park’s history, the Associated Press reported last week.

But the Paradise fire, of course, paled in comparison to this summer’s largest fire, the Okanogan Complex fire that burned nearly 305,000 square acres, cost $44.5 million to fight, forced evacuations in Okanogan County, destroyed or damaged 120 residences and resulted in the deaths of three firefighters and severely injured a fourth. Until this summer, last year’s Carlton Complex fire, which burned more than 256,000 acres, was the largest in state history.

Fire, except that cozily contained to a fireplace, is not top of mind right now, but it was the subject of a hearing before the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, continues to pursue longer-term legislation to address deficiencies in how the states and nation prepare for and fight wildfires.

Cantwell, following publication of a white paper on wildfires early this year, proposed the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which was referred to a federal lands subcommittee in March and has moved no further. She and the committee’s chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, again are drafting legislation that would:

  • Responsibly fund fire suppression to end the practice of “fire borrowing,” where the U.S. Forest Service borrows from its fire prevention and other accounts to fund firefighting;
  • Better coordinate resources to make sure equipment, such as aircraft are available when needed, and improve the safety of firefighters;
  • Increase preparedness of communities, through programs such as Firewise, to reduce fire hazards near property; and
  • Increase the use of thinning and prescribed burning to limit the fuel available to wildfires.

The state of Washington could do more itself regarding the last point. A report in the The Seattle Times in October compared spending on prescribed burns in Washington state on state and federal lands to that in other Western states. Between 2002 and 2014, the Forest Service used prescribed burning on 131,752 acres in Washington state, compared to 728,892 acres in Oregon and 385,314 acres in Idaho. State Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark prefers thinning to burning, because of smoke complaints from nearby communities, the Times reported.

Recent fall rains and the return of snow to the Cascades and Olympics have improved but not ended the state’s drought declaration, the state Department of Ecology reports. Even with the improvement, the Ecology Department said, this winter’s El Nino weather pattern still is expected to bring below-normal snowfall to the Northwest.

With drier-than-typical weather and a backlog of work to reduce fuels and prepare communities for next fire season we can’t put off needed reforms and cross our fingers that we won’t see a repeat of the last two summers’ destruction.

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