Not only is the world in the grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic, but America’s western wildlands are burning up as well.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters his state has a dual crises: the massive wildfire complexes and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

“At this time last year, California had seen 4,292 fires that burned 56,000 acres. So far this year, we’ve had 7,002 fires that have burned a whopping 1.4 million acres,” he said. California reports more than 660,000 coronavirus cases.

In Washington, the gigantic Evans Canyon Fire has burned over 110 square miles between Naches and Ellensburg spewing thick smoke and ash northeastward.

Wildfires threaten lives. Last year, an inferno swiftly swept through Paradise, California, killing 95 people. This September, National Guard helicopters swooped into the Mammoth Reservoir campgrounds east of Fresno just in time to rescue over 200 trapped campers.

In 2017, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge closed Interstate 84, delayed truck, rail and barge shipments and added a thick layer of greenhouse gases, choking smoke and soot blanketing our region. Southwest Washington’s air quality reached its highest hazard level in history, prompting school closures.

Mammoth forest fires have been around for centuries. In a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half-million acres and killed 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mount St. Helens. The smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass and the street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.

Forest fires are part of nature, but they are getting more dangerous and expensive to fight. As fires increase in size and intensity, suppression, environmental restoration and mitigation costs soar.

U.S. News reports the Department of Interior, most notably the U.S. Forest Service, spent an all-time high last year of more than $2.9 billion combating fires — more than 12 times what was spent on suppression efforts in 1985. Insurance claims have topped $12 billion for the November 2019 wildfires in California, making them the most expensive in state history.

That is a growing problem as our nation is being swallowed up by a skyrocketing national debt. It will soon top $27 trillion thanks largely to the COVID-19 response meaning each American taxpayer would have to pony up $215,000 if our creditors called for immediate repayment.

John Bailey, a professor of forest management at Oregon State University, told the Associated Press that megafires, those consuming at least 156 square miles, are increasing. He believes “part of the solution is thinning forests through logging, prescribed burns and allowing naturally occurring fires to be managed instead of extinguished.”

Cutting diseased, dead and fire damaged trees is not new. In intermountain forests (Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia), loggers once salvaged beetle-killed trees and sent them to rural sawmills to be cut into 2x4s. That practice was severely curtailed 30 years ago.

Knowing that mature trees are most susceptible to insects and disease, public forest managers once designed timber sales on small tracts as fire breaks. The logging and subsequent clean-up removed forest fuels which, in recent years, have been allowed to accumulate.

Harvesting helped fund replanting and fire access road construction. Environmental mitigation techniques have dramatically improved resulting in clean water and unencumbered access for fish returning to natural spawning grounds.

Megafires are polluting our air, endangering our health and safety and burning a bigger hole in our pocketbooks. By thinning, salvaging and logging, we could not only save expenses, but create jobs and bring in needed revenue to the government.

It really is time to revisit the way we are managing our forests.

•••

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

(3) comments

Rosefield

In reading the article, it appears that the author attributes the megafires to using the wrong forest management tactics. That well may be a part of the problem. But climate change is also a huge part of the problem. Any good forest management plan will have to consider the role trees play in carbon absorption. The amount of carbon held by a tree depends on the species and age, https://envirobites.org/2019/09/24/old-is-better-than-young-the-carbon-sequestration-potential-of-letting-forests-mature/, with older trees generally thought to be much more effective. A healthy forest will also have dead trees that provide food and nesting cavities for birds, mammals, and insects, and leaf litter. A healthy forest is a very complex and nuanced entity.

The best solution to prevent megafires, as well as mega floods and hurricanes is to protect the environment, reduce carbon emissions, and slow climate change.,

LarryD

....and managed forests to prevent widespread tree diseases and insects that kill trees by the thousands of acres providing dry fuel for huge fires... Drive across the North Cascades pass some time and you can see the insect devastation of the forests there being left on its own.. That is an area that is just ripe for a mega fire...

Mega fires have been around for a very, very long time and well before today's climate changes... The great fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres of Montana, Idaho and Washington.. An unnamed fire in 1898 burned 2.5 million acres in North Carolina.. The great fire of 1845 burned 1.5 million acres in Oregon... And, the list is very much longer dating back in time. From 1500 to 1800 fires burned an average of 145 million acres per year... Have they been increasing in number, yes so tools need to be applied...

Modern forest management is an equally important tool along with climate tools in the arsenal for protecting people, animals, and the environment. Forest management practices help develop strong healthy forests resistant to insects, disease, and even resistant to fire. Trees in a way are like people, crowd them together too much and disease can spread rapidly. Insects in trees are the same way.. This can be seen in many, many areas where there is too much crowding in the forest.

Best practices in forest management have been shown to reduce the number and the severity of fires when they do occur... So, is there one tool, no... Forest management practices are a set of tools that need to be used in conjunction with others in reduction of fires...

iamvics

FYI - the US Forest Service is a USDA (Dept. of Agriculture). Dept. of Interior has jurisdiction for other agencies, i.e., BLM, National Parks.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.