A tool to combat the worst effects of wildfires has come back to Washington state: prescribed burning.
For the first time in 18 years, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in fall 2021 brought back a program to reduce the chance that wildfires, which because of climate change have become more intense and destructive, will have a devastating impact.
“We know fires happen at a certain time of the year, so you want to go in and reduce some of the fuels on the ground that could lead to an intense wildfire,” said Mike Norris, cross-boundary restoration assistant division manager with the Department of Natural Resources.
The forest restoration project will focus on where wildfires are the worst, in Eastern Washington. But in Cowlitz County the program also will be essential on DNR-managed lands to mitigate and even prevent major wildfires as climate change threatens the entire Northwest.
Norris said they will conduct prescribed burns where they expect low-intensity fires on the west side of the state, specifically on prairies in the South Puget Sound area.
Known as controlled burning, the idea goes back centuries.
Tribes in the Northwest deliberately burned dry vegetation to get rid of materials more likely to catch fire during the hot summers.
“We know from research a lot of these sites are fire-dependent, like the ponderosa pines,” Norris said. “When people burned in the past, the fires didn’t burn too aggressively.”
Fires are an essential part of many forests, he said. When specialists can plan the fire, they can design it in advance to preserve environmental conditions, help endangered species recover and make firefighting less expensive in the long term, according to the National Park Service.
After getting advice from meteorologists, ecologists and local fire staff, Norris said they usually find a spring day with good weather and where they can predict the wind will push smoke far from neighboring communities.
Then, crews come equipped with hoses and a few engines. Using a mixture of diesel and fuel, they establish a perimeter and light a “test fire” before dousing dry grass and shrubs in a controlled blaze. Even days and sometimes weeks after they put out the small fire, crews will monitor the area to make sure everything still is extinguished.
Department professionals and staff from local fire agencies this spring will focus their efforts near Springdale, Loomis and South Cle Elum, creating low-intensity fires in hopes to skirt bigger blazes that in recent years have burned hundreds of thousands of acres.
Last summer alone, fires in Whitman, Stevens, Spokane and several other counties raced through acres of land and caused evacuations. The year before, in September 2021, a fire almost totally destroyed the town of Malden and left most of its residents displaced.
As weather pattern La Niña keeps most of the western United States in drought, the chance that fires will continue and grow in intensity looms over much of the state. Farmers have lost crops, people have lost homes and firefighters literally have worked around the clock against walls of fire in largely rural communities.
Prescribed burning provides a chance to circumvent some of the worst effects, Norris said. The idea is firefighters not only will get a chance to work with their equipment before the worst of fire season, but they also get a chance to work as a team with their crews, he said.
In restarting the program, Washington state is following federal and other states. The National Interagency Fire Center in 2019 reported 6 million acres underwent planned burns by state and local firefighting agencies.