In the Pacific Northwest, Testing Out New Wildfire Defenses on the Front Lines

Where quick-spreading fires are the “new normal,” some state officials and communities are willing to try whatever it takes to prevent—or better prepare for—the next big blaze.
A smoky haze covering Seattle, August 2018

Elaine Thompson/AP

When wildfires broke out and blanketed much of Washington State with a thick layer of smoke earlier this year, the typically bright blue skies of summer in Seattle contained a peach-orange sun—and some of the worst air quality in the world.

In response, some residents took unusual measures—such as using fans to blow smoke back toward Canada, whence it had come. Or throwing rocks at the smoke. Though intended to elicit laughs, these actions indicate how helpless Washingtonians have felt about the thick gray clouds from the so-called megafires that have burned more than 100,000 acres of their state this year.

“Fire is no stranger to the Evergreen State, historically,” says Reese Lolley, director of forest restoration and fire for The Nature Conservancy in Washington. Lightning set off blazes in the Northwest’s great conifer forests, and Northwest tribes have extensively used fire for shaping the land.

But the fires of today are larger and more difficult to control than those of the past—and scientists point to climate change as a culprit. Although “climate change doesn’t start fires,” as Angus Duncan, chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, points out, it extends the fire season and amplifies damage by supplying dry, fire-prone forests. In the Pacific Northwest, impacts from climate change can also come in the form of “wet drought.” The phenomenon is triggered when warmer winter temperatures cause precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow, diminishing the high-altitude snowpack. By the time spring comes, the moisture that would have stayed trapped until then on frozen mountainsides has all but disappeared, denying the state a critical source of surface water and forcing it to endure a long, dry summer. A 2016 report published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that these impacts of human-caused climate change doubled the cumulative forest fire area between 1984 and 2015, when an additional 10.4 million acres burned.

Adding to the growing forest fire risk, as Duncan notes, is the fact that wildland ecosystems have been poorly managed for a century or more, subject to massive selective logging of their large, fire resistant trees. Heavy grazing has also changed natural vegetation in ways that can make fires more destructive to the landscape. And people have built homes and developments farther into flammable landscapes—complicating firefighters’ response efforts. Expanding roads and the use of off-road vehicles deeper into the backcountry has also increased fire starts in some places.

In Washington alone, an estimated 4.1 million acres burned from 2000 to 2017, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The human toll has been grave, with lives and homes lost and millions spent on suppression and recovery. A recently released study notes that thousands of illnesses and premature deaths may occur due to particulates released into the air by U.S. fires.

Wildland fires are a “rolling disaster,” according to Hilary Lundgren of Washington Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, a coalition of 13 communities sharing knowledge on what works (and what doesn’t) in terms of wildfire prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

“We’re sharing best practices and our fantastic failures,” Lundgren says. “This is hard. Fires are a natural part of our ecosystem, which relies on fire as part of its life cycle. We’re taking the next step in creating a cultural and social shift to adapt to the reality and natural frequency of fire.”

Nurturing Forest Resiliency

In some ways, the billows of wildfire smoke capturing public attention have helped heighten awareness of the need for climate action in Washington and beyond. “The catastrophic implications of climate change are hard to convey, but when there are visible, tangible, and immediate effects, it can move people,” Duncan says.

A helicopter pilot flying past a wildfire burning near the Nadleh Whut'en First Nation in Fort Fraser, British Columbia, August 2018

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP

On the other hand, the blazes have given any kind of fire on the landscape an exclusively bad name. “We don’t want an overreaction that would redefine all forest fires as bad,” Duncan says. Clamping down could lead to fire suppression efforts that have proved damaging over the long haul, ultimately making wildlands more prone to major conflagration. As an NRDC report on the health hazards of wildfire smoke notes, prematurely putting out small fires that could have cleared away undergrowth leaves some forests clogged with highly flammable small trees and shrubs. Unnecessarily suppressing them can increase the risks of subsequent fires being bigger and harder to control.

To keep this forest growth in check, ecologists also advise setting prescribed fires under carefully controlled conditions, usually in the spring and fall outside the wildfire window. Not only does prescribed fire reduce risk of out-of-control wildfire, proponents say; it also created healthier, stronger, and more diverse forests that can better withstand threats like insects and disease.

In 2016 the Washington State Legislature passed House Bill 2928, the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot project, which began a program of prescribed burns. The prescribed burn teams work with air quality regulators to minimize smoke levels and the respiratory impacts on surrounding communities. Duncan notes that the forest and fire managers who are implementing these burns while grappling with increasing human settlement, the impacts of decades of fire suppression, and climate change, “are doing impossible jobs.”

Part of a crew thinning trees across a 100-acre patch of land owned by The Nature Conservancy overlooking Cle Elum Lake in Washington, February 2017

Elaine Thompson/AP

Thinning or Profiting?

Near areas of human habitation, forestry science suggests both prescribed fire and complementary tree thinning. But the latter can be problematic when “thinning” is conflated with commercial logging. Timber harvesting releases more carbon emissions than megafire smoke, according to one recent study conducted in the Pacific Northwest. Yet the U.S. Forest Service’s budget is augmented by timber sales—and the agency is often motivated to make timber projects attractive to commercial timber producers.

It is profits, of course, that motivate timber producers, even when they operate in the name of forest health. When asked to thin danger zones by removing small, quick-ignite saplings and other potential “fuel,” the companies sometimes also request to harvest a number of trees that are of marketable size. Ironically, those tend to be the trunks strong enough to withstand a blaze.

Duncan points out that federal efforts to restore forest health should prioritize healthy management practices—not clear-cutting. Wise long-term preservation and management of temperate forests from California to Alaska, and beyond, also aid in the battle against climate change. After all, the forests absorb as much as 30 percent global of carbon emissions.

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Adapting to Fire

Minimizing fires has long been the responsibility of local, state, or federal authorities. But new approaches also increasingly rely on building codes and homeowners, Lolley notes. Some vulnerable Pacific Northwest homeowners are making concerted efforts to prevent fire’s spread—whether by choice or because state laws and fire insurance policies require adaptations.

In the central Oregon town where Duncan makes his home, regulations require owners to perform what’s called “defensive space” maintenance. This involves such measures as raking up pine needles within 40 to 50 feet of a house and removing small trees that could “ladder” fire into the tops of larger trees. Meanwhile, in several communities in eastern Washington, local fire departments, conservation districts, and collaborative coalitions will conduct free, in-depth inspections to assess a home’s risk of burning. They may suggest modifications as simple as moving a woodpile away from the home or as complex as replacing a roof. In some circumstances, state aid can help with costs.

Convincing communities of the necessity of these preparations can be difficult, Lundgren says. But they are essential—as is a road map of actions to take to recover after a fire, such as coordinating with local organizations to designate spokespeople and donation managers, and creating disaster plans that accelerate community healing.

While some fires will qualify for federal aid, others won’t. “The loss in rural communities may not be significant at the scale necessary to qualify for assistance,” Lundgren says, “but loss is loss.”

Three years after Washington’s raging Okonogan Complex fire, nonprofits, businesses, community members, and volunteers are still erecting frames for houses and replacing lost belongings from garden hoses to teddy bears. They’re also building a tourist-friendly map of the “fire shaped landscape” that resulted from the big burn.

Stop Climate Change, Save Lives

The Bigger Picture

In response to recent megafires, the Washington DNR is taking the long view and has already developed a 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan for eastern Washington. The plan takes an “all lands, all hands” multi-partner approach and includes “landscape prescriptions” for watershed mosaics of private, state, and federal lands and support for homeowners in reducing risks.

Meanwhile, in Oregon, legislators are considering measures that would help mitigate the main culprit of raging wildfires: climate change. A new Carbon Policy Office is considering how carbon sequestration in state forests can play an offset role in reducing energy and industrial greenhouse gas emissions. A “carbon cap and invest” bill similar to one passed in California has also been under consideration by Oregon’s state legislature to decrease overall carbon emissions. “Oregon forests alone contain the equivalent of 10 or 11 billion tons of carbon dioxide,” Duncan says.

On the Washington State ballot this November, Initiative 1631—also known as the Protect Washington Act—proposes collecting a pollution-reduction fee from “large emitters, based on the carbon content of fossil fuels and electricity . . . sold or used within this state.” Among other actions, funds will be earmarked to boost the climate-change resiliency of state forests. If the initiative passes, it will be a national first in putting a direct price on carbon.

In the meantime, adaptation, unfortunately, will remain necessary. “This is the new normal,” Lundgren says.

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