- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - The U.S. Forest Service wants more controlled burns in Washington forests to help make them more resistant to summer wildfires.

But The Seattle Times reports (https://is.gd/5dW6pP ) rules administered by the state Department of Natural Resources are a roadblock to this fire prevention approach in Washington.

Controlled burns are endorsed by scientists as an important tool for keeping forests healthier and less susceptible to devastating wildfires.

“It’s a very low-risk kind of policy where they’re very averse to putting fire on the landscape. Consequently, it’s been very hard to get the burning done,” said Rick Graw, a Forest Service air quality manager for the Pacific Northwest region.

The state rules that keep this firefighting tool from being used more often in Washington include rules aimed at keeping smoke from driving into communities.

That is why the Forest Service has carried out burns on far fewer acres in Washington than in Oregon, Montana, Idaho and California.

During a 13-year period ending in 2014, the Forest Service completed controlled burns on 4.7 percent of Oregon’s 15.7 million acres of national forests. In Washington, the Forest Service burned only 1.4 percent of its 9.3 million acres.

DNR and its burn rules are the responsibility of elected state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, a longtime Okanogan Highlands rancher and former wildland volunteer firefighter.

Goldmark views chain saws and other equipment as the tools of choice for thinning the woodlands. He says he is open to considering policy changes but is not enthusiastic about leading the charge.

“We have to be conservative, heaven only knows,” Goldmark said. “Of course we want to be helpful in terms of prescribed burns, but we have the responsibility that communities don’t get smoked out, and that’s not an easy task.”

Currently, DNR conducts limited burning of slash piles in meadows, but does no prescribed burns on the lands it manages - a departure from agency practice in previous decades.

Goldmark is also wary of giving the green light to large burns on Washington’s 9 million acres of Forest Service lands. He questions whether burns can be safely conducted in forests that have not been first been logged or thinned.

Forest Service officials say some heavily wooded areas do require thinning before a controlled burn. But they say other areas can be treated with fire alone - a less expensive option.

Forest scientists have concluded prescribed fires can make forests less prone to disease and benefit wildlife. And when wildfires erupt, the stands treated with fire are likely to burn with less intensity, offering a place for crews to set defensive lines.

DNR and other government agencies that approve controlled burns worry about the consequences when they don’t go according to plan.

In 2000, a National Park Service prescribed fire in New Mexico, intended to burn 900 acres, whipped out of control, scorching 40,000 acres and destroying hundreds of homes. The damage toll came to $1 billion, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The U.S. Forest Service has seen smaller mishaps in Washington state when weather changes unexpectedly funneled smoke into populated areas.

In September of 2009, smoke from 800-acre prescribed burn blew from the Naches Ranger District into the Yakima Valley, and the resulting pollution reached unhealthy levels for five hours.

That triggered a fierce round of complaints to DNR for approving the burn. The Yakima Regional Clean Air Agency initially fined the Forest Service $12,000; the penalty was later rescinded.

“Unfortunately it was the time of year that the Central Washington State Fair was going on, and we got calls from those folks, and from county commissioners and the general public,” said Gary Pruitt, the clean-air agency’s executive director. “We got dozens of calls, some of them being highly politically connected. It got my attention.”

DNR reacted with new restrictions that effectively halted all controlled burns in the Naches District for more than a year.

In 2011, a DNR official acknowledged the agency had gone too far and removed some of the restrictions. But it left in place rules requiring burns to be smaller and conducted over only one day.

There are trade-offs the public needs to come to grips with, said Michael Medler, chair of the environmental studies at Western Washington University, who studies wildfires.

“You don’t stop these fires. You just put them off,” said Medler, a former wildland firefighter. “Would you like us to pick a day and dump X amount of smoke? Or would you like to gamble and say in two or three years you’ll get something that brings two or three times as much?”

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Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com


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