The state Department of Natural Resources is planning to torch more than 2,100 acres this spring in an aim to prevent more severe wildfires as things heat up this summer.
Lawmakers in 2021 earmarked $500 million for wildfire prevention and forest health treatments such as these prescribed burns. After evaluating weather and wind patterns, fire risk and ecological benefits, DNR officials zeroed in on seven sites in Klickitat, Kittitas, Okanogan and Spokane counties that could provide the biggest bang for their buck this spring.
A DNR burn boss will lead a 240-acre fire around a recreational shooting area north of Spokane known as Boggs Pit. In 2021, DNR fire crews responded to at least four fires in the area that were either definitively or likely caused by recreational shooting, according to the department.
Other areas targeted for prescribed burns include those that were recently thinned, a process of removing some trees in a forest stand to reduce density. Research has shown that combining mechanical thinning with prescribed fire tends to do a lot better than just one or the other for both long-term resilience and for how that landscape will interact with a wildfire, said Will Rubin, a DNR spokesperson.
Prescribed fire has a long, rich tradition rooted in Indigenous ecological knowledge, but a University of Idaho study found there was no significant increase in prescribed burn acreage in the western U.S. from 1998 to 2018, as wildfires became increasingly frequent and intense.
DNR in 2022 ignited the first prescribed burn season on state land in nearly two decades, marking a dramatic shift in state land management. Policies regulating air-quality standards were among the issues that previously quelled the burns, DNR told the Spokesman-Review last year.
The practice can help cycle nutrients in the soil, create more open spaces and snags for animal habitat. The primary goal is reducing fuels for fires, Rubin said.
The process of identifying sites for prescribed burns can take months of site visits and calculations, Rubin said. Other areas identified for prescribed burns this spring include about 540 acres around Tonasket and 140 acres near Loomis in Okanogan County; nearly 200 acres near Cle Elum, Kittitas County, and more than 1,000 near Glenwood in Klickitat County.
DNR will use social media, postcards and emails to notify those living near prescribed burns. People living near the burns should take similar precautions as they would during fire season, like making a box-fan filter, closing windows and avoiding vacuuming or activities that might stir up dust.
People living near prescribed burns will see and smell smoke, but should not be alarmed or call emergency services. Ultimately, the burns should help reduce the amount of smoke caused by wildfires.
Burns may be postponed or canceled if weather conditions make it unsafe for crews and the community.