Scientists point to controlled burns, or prescribed fires, as “an important tool for keeping forests healthier and less susceptible to devastating wildfires.” Given the historic wildfires that have recently raged in Eastern Washington, Forest Service officials want to step up the scale of these burns in our state.
In fact, they have been asking state officials like Peter Goldmark for the ability to take these preventative measures for years.
Unfortunately, their plans have been blocked by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency responsible for much of the wildland firefighting in Washington. The Seattle Times,
“DNR enforces a strict set of rules aimed at keeping smoke from drifting into communities — effectively limiting the scope of controlled burns sought by the Forest Service and others. Meanwhile, DNR has stopped conducting burns on its own forest lands…”
Responsibility lies with state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark
Who is responsible for the setting DNR’s policy for an astonishing lack of controlled burns to prevent bigger widlfires? Peter Goldmark, a Democrat first elected as state Public Lands Commissioner in 2008. Under Goldmark’s “leadership”, controlled burns in Washington State have lagged far behind neighboring states, including Oregon and Idaho.
Goldmark blames blowback his agency receives when smoke drifts into towns as the reason for his lack of protecting state lands from wildfires. “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,” Goldmark told the Seattle Times.
Rather than rely on controlled burns, Goldmark prefers “chain saws and other equipment as the first tools of choice for thinning the woodlands.” The problem is that approach is far less effective and far more expensive. The Seattle Times,
“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.”
Controlled burns proven to be effective
A perfect example of the benefits of controlled burns occurred in August when a wildfire advanced on homes in the Aeneas Valley. Forest Service firefighters had deliberatively burned the area during cooler spring and fall seasons to clear out undergrowth. As a result, firefighters were able to halt the “northern advance of the North Star wildfire, one of the largest blazes of the summer that consumed hundreds of square miles across the state.”
The science behind controlled burns is strong. Scientists have concluded that the strategy is effective in both preventing and controlling forest fires. The Seattle Times,
“Scientists found that natural fires in lower- and mid- elevation Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir forests historically occurred at frequent intervals, and the thick-barked trees typically survived these fires. But decades of fire-suppression allowed a buildup of young trees and other brush that contributes to more destructive wildfires.
“So in the 1990s, the Forest Service began conducting controlled burns to reduce this fuel.
“Forest scientists have concluded that these 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.”
Goldmark makes the wrong choice
In 2009, DNR dealt with public backlash from smoke that blew from the Naches Ranger District into the Yakima Valley from a controlled burn. Goldmark overreacted and imposed restrictions that “effectively halted all controlled burns in the Naches District for more than a year.”
The restrictions were removed in 2011 after a DNR official acknowledged the agency went too far. However, rules were left that required burns to be “be smaller and conducted over only one day.”
One year later, firefighters battled the 2012 Wild Rose Fire in the region. And, the controversial controlled burns that took place years earlier proved vital to firefighters’ efforts to halting its progress.
Goldmark does not appear to understand that he is dealing with a tradeoff when it comes to controlled burns, and he’s making the wrong choice. The Seattle Times,
“It’s a tradeoff 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?’”
Clay Fitzgerald says
Goldmark is a liberal, secular-progressive moron who doesn’t; know sheet from shinola.
Agree…Goldmark (and Inslee) are part of the problem not part of the solution.
Go back to square one for a second. Our forests are just that: OUR forests. They were given to us to care for and pay for building our schools – k-12 and the universities. So to provide that “pay” we farm the forests and provide for a growing population in perpetuity. In fact I am told that in the 50’s we were providing 60%+ of school building funding from our forests, now its in the 20%s. And now we want to lower class sizes meaning more school rooms and want you to ante up what the forests are supposed to provide.
And to me there is an even more compelling “green” reason to farm the forests rather than burn them down – whether controlled or uncontrolled.
If nothing else forests are our finest land-based carbon sequestration device. So burning a forest – even a “one day” controlled burn – is releasing 50 years of carbon sequestration back into the atmosphere in an afternoon. Oh, besides we lose livestock, game, homes and people if we do it wrong. So what to do?
Lets go back to patchwork clear cutting, say, not to exceed five acre patches and not contiguous, with a 50-year farming plan that cuts every square inch over a half century and replants with 2 or 3 to one seedlings. It provides the same large fire management capabilities, we are able to sell the product (making more schools) and we are not putting the carbon back into the atmosphere. I would argue that we should NEVER EVER sell the raw logs to any but a US mill and then sell the finished lumber to the world at large so that the carbon stays sequestered. (Which in turn means: jobs, jobs, jobs!) The resulting clear cut area then re-grows starting with grasses and open areas for deer and the like and the replanted trees sequester the carbon even faster since young healthy growing trees take in more carbon per cubic inch that older versions. Even cooler, you can leave the stumps in the ground for clear cut land with a slope over “X” percent so that the hillsides and fish are not so impacted. The stumps will go away over the years through the natural process of rotting and will likely provide nutrients for the new generation of forests.
It would seem to me that Goldmark needs to be replaced (as does Jay) with someone who has forest MANAGEMENT in his or her DNA. Bill Driscoll of Tacoma comes to mind – a combat tempered Marine who is part of the Weyerhaeuser clan and active in forest management.
Note to greenies: I am a 4th generation Washingtonian. I love forests and have chosen to live in one – much to my wife’s chagrin (who thinks living on a beach is a better way to go). But I would be a tree hugger like you a hundred years ago when loggers were tree miners not tree farmers. The best stewards of the land are always farmers – corporate or family – whose food and forest products must be sustained over decades or centuries or they do not eat. Nor does the rest of the world.
“And to me there is an even more compelling “green” reason to farm the forests rather than burn them down – whether controlled or uncontrolled.”
Controlled burns do not burn the trees, it’s used to remove all the fuel at ground level that allows the fire to move through the forest floor. Those grasses for the deer and like turn into flammable fuel in the summer, and one lightning strike can ruin thousands of acres of trees.