With the cool, cloudy weather hovering over Southwest Washington for the past few days — including snow flurries at Paradise on Mount Rainier, as reported by the National Weather Service — few of us have wildfire danger on our minds.
That doesn’t include Hilary Franz, Washington state’s commissioner of public lands. Franz stopped by The Chronicle Thursday as part of her continuing effort to educate the public on Washington’s increasing wildfire danger, exacerbated by years of poor forest management statewide.
“We are in really bad shape. We are in extremely dry conditions,” she said. “We are, right now, expecting one of the worst fire seasons to date.”
While arid Eastern Washington has taken the brunt of Washington’s wildfire season in years past, the trend is skewing farther and farther west. So far this year, not yet to July, Washington has experienced 624 wildfires, 30 percent of which occurred on the west side of the state, Franz said. Last year, 40 percent of Washington’s 1,850 wildfires occurred in Western Washington.
In an effort to respond faster to fires throughout the state, Franz is directing the Department of Natural Resources to strategically place equipment based on fire danger and anticipated weather conditions. On a busy summer day, she described firefighting efforts as a game of “whack-a-mole.” You knock one fire down and immediately move on to the next one.
“We are going to be putting more on the west side based on what we’re seeing,” she said.
But fighting Washington’s ever more destructive wildfires is not all about being reactive, she said. It requires a proactive approach to solve in the long term. Part of that is public education. Franz is stressing to Western Washington residents that their green fields and forests are considerably dryer and more prone to fires than they might appear.
As our local fire districts have, she stresses the importance of property owners creating defensible space around their homes and to clear brush and tall grass around properties. It’s a responsibility all of us bear, but an easy one to fulfill.
Another part of Franz’ proactive approach is to develop the 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which identifies 2.7 million acres of public and private forestland in Eastern Washington alone with a high risk of fire due to, among other things, high density of diseased, dying trees. A Western Washington-focused plan is still in the works, but we imagine it will contain a similarly high acreage of forest badly in need of thinning and treatment.
The plan includes millions of dollars set aside to do just that in Eastern Washington, with the goal of reducing fire danger while funneling the wood into the cross laminated timber industry, giving the economy a boost along the way.
We, as a newspaper serving a heavily forested portion of Western Washington, applaud Franz’ comprehensive plan to both react aggressively to day-to-day wildfire risks and to plan proactively for the future health of our state and its forests.
Please don’t let the morning cloud cover fool you — we’re heading for a long fire season. And when you buy your Fourth of July fireworks in the next two weeks, remember to enjoy them responsibly.