Washington wildfires

Washington legislators are considering measures to reduce fuel loads and create fire breaks.

OLYMPIA — A northeast Washington lawmaker has proposed constructing fuel breaks on public lands to keep wildfires from rolling along until they run into something like a road or river.

The breaks, made by controlled burns or thinning vegetation before fires start, would give firefighters a place to make a stand, Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said Jan. 31.

“I just don’t want to concede the whole forest,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t have a highway for 50 miles.”

Kretz’s legislation, House Bill 1784, is one of several wildfire-related bills introduced after another summer of fire and smoke.

Wildfires burned about 440,000 acres in 2018, according to the Department of Natural Resources. The smoke from Washington fires combined with smoke from California, Oregon and Canada to cause public health agencies to warn Puget Sound residents about poor air.

Gov. Jay Inslee has cited the smoke and ash on cars in the state’s biggest cities as a consequence of climate change and a reason to mandate cuts in the amount of fossil fuels used to power vehicles and heat homes.

State laws generally favor air quality over controlled burns. Lawmakers, however, have set goals for reducing fire hazards in forests. Kretz’s bill would add to a state law that directs the Department of Natural Resources to thin a million acres by 2033. The bill has not yet had a hearing.

A fire-prevention bill heard Jan. 31 by the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee would allow outdoor burning for the public’s healthy, safety and welfare, including in and near towns.

DNR said it supported the bill and removing barriers to controlled burns to reduce fire hazards. Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart, whose northeast Washington county has been hard hit by wildfires, said the bill was “fantastic.”

The Department of Ecology and Puget Sound Clean Air Agency said they are fine with controlled burns, but questioned the bill’s broad language. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said she was concerned that loosening rules on outdoor burning will be exploited by developers.

“I’m supportive of the forest health component, but not of the component that’s simply making it cheaper for people to clear land,” she said.

The skies also were hazy last summer in Eastern Washington, where homes and rangeland are a concern, too. An analysis for the U.S. Forest Service last year identified the 50 Washington communities where homes are mostly likely to be burned by wildfire. All 50 were east of the Cascades.

The city of Rosyln in Kittitas County has been frustrated in thinning a 330-acre forest owned by the city, said Chris Martin, the fire department’s emergency management coordinator.

“That forestland badly needs to be burned,” he told the committee. “It’s a scary proposition to have houses on one side of the street and forests on the other and be told you can’t use the best tool available to reduce that risk.”


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