Washington was lucky to have a less intense fire season this summer due to cooler, wetter conditions, the state’s commissioner of public lands said.
“While we have seen lots of fires start this year, with over a thousand fires, we have done a very good job of preventing any of these fires from becoming large and severe,” Commissioner Hilary Franz said. She spoke during a Sept. 9 telephone town hall meeting in Spokane.
Nearly 129,000 acres burned in Eastern Washington and 679 acres burned in Western Washington this year. The department doesn’t distinguish between land types, so the total number of acres that were agricultural or grasslands isn’t known, spokeswoman Bobbi Cussins said.
Two of the most significant fires were in Grant County, much on sagebrush and cheatgrass, Franz said. One burned more than 25,000 acres and the other burned more than 40,000 acres.
On the second fire, irrigated agriculture helped keep the fire from spreading, Franz said.
Plenty of fuels remain on the landscape, “still vulnerable to even the smallest spark,” Franz said.
“We think we are on the downhill slide of fires here in Washington,” said Chuck Turley, wildfire division manager for the department. “We will start to spend less time on fire suppression and more time on fire preparedness for next year.”
Franz said the department also wants to address 2.75 million acres of unhealthy forests in Eastern Washington.
These forests have lost their natural resistance to wildfire, “which means they burn easier and more severely,” she said.
The department has a 20-year plan to restore 1.25 million acres in Eastern Washington, treating 35,000 acres last year and 50,000 acres this year. The goal is to ramp up efforts and treat 70,000 acres each year, she said.
Franz said DNR has identified areas in Eastern Washington that represent the highest risks for fire, treating federal and state lands, and providing resources for local property owners.
“We’re going in and we’re removing the dead and diseased trees, the smaller diameter trees that are on that landscape that weaken larger, healthier trees because they’re all competing for water and soil nutrients,” Franz said.
Removing weak or dead branches on the lower parts of trees reduces fuel that can lead to catastrophic fires.
“What we’re trying to do is get back to the original healthy state of those forests,” she said.
The timber is not going to waste, she said.
Franz pointed to Vaagen Timbers in Colville and Katerra in Spokane as examples of companies using smaller-diameter trees and dead and diseased trees to manufacture products such as cross-laminated timber and other types of engineered-wood building materials.
“If we invest proactively and address the problem of why we’re seeing more catastrophic fires, rather than reactively in the face of smoke and flames, we can actually not only protect the environment, we can create local jobs and create more affordable and sustainable building products,” she said.
More timber sales are also planned.
In the last five years, the department has offered more than 86 major timber sales on land it manages, with 41,000 acres of timber harvested. Last year the department generated $94.8 million on common school trust land, which helps pay for school construction.
In the next two years, 40 timber sales are planned in Eastern Washington, covering 17,000 acres.