What is the best way to prevent the massive fires that have ravaged Washington in recent years? In Washington state, the answer is a coordinated program of active forest management, which includes the harvesting of timber and selectively thinning to reduce forest fuels, such as underbrush, and limiting the size of fires that naturally occur.
Here are six things to know about forest management and wildfires.
1. Not All Fire in our Forests is Bad
Fires are naturally occurring – such as from lightning strikes – and small, less intense fires can actually be good for the health of our forests. Many trees, including pines, need fire to reproduce. Fire clears out space for new growth and removes dying trees that can harbor pests. This is why Washington is ramping up its use of prescribed burns. Intentionally set fires – tightly monitored and controlled – clear out undergrowth and prevent overcrowding, making our forests healthier and more resistant to the large, raging wildfires we are seeing too often.
2. Washington State Has a 20-Year Plan for Forests
The Washington State Department of Natural Resources unveiled a 20-year plan last year that calls for close collaboration among government agencies, private forest landowners, tribal communities, timber companies and environmental groups. This plan would include using prescribed burning and selective thinning to restore the health of 1.25 million acres of forestland. This effort would be unprecedented in its scope and scale, and is our best bet to create strong, healthy forests and reduce future wildfires.
3. Preventing the Harvesting of Timber Can Actually Cause Devastating Fires
When forests are overgrown, they become repositories of fuel for rapid-growing wildfires. Dead trees and underbrush littering the forest floor that would ordinarily be cleared by small natural fires act as quick-burning kindling that will hasten the spread of raging, uncontrollable fires. Environmentalists and landowners agree that harvesting, selectively thinning and creating strategic fire breaks is wise forest management because those steps reduce fuel loads while also minimizing chances for naturally occurring fire to spread.
NOTE -- this is before thinning and after thinning, on a treefarm in Republic WA – place side by side – you can actually see the same tree in both photos.
4. Cooperation is Key to Deterring Wildfires
People recognize property boundaries, but fires do not. That is why it is essential for stakeholders to cooperate on forest management initiatives across property lines, county lines and state lines.
“From rural landowners, to nature lovers, to working families who rely on timber jobs, all Washingtonians benefit from well-managed and resilient forests,” Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said. “To help lead this effort, the Department of Natural Resources has forged innovative partnerships with landowners and agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, to do the cross-boundary, landscape-scale work necessary for our forests to thrive.”
This challenge is bigger than any one entity and requires a harmonized response. The Confederated Colville Tribes in Northeastern Washington, for example, are building a sawmill to process ponderosa pine. "If you look at it from a management standpoint, it makes a lot of sense," said Cody Desautel, the tribe’s natural resources director.
5. We Have Already Seen the Value of Good Forest Management
In 2017, the Jolly Mountain Fire in the Wenatchee National Forest claimed 26,000 acres and threatened the cities of Cle Elum and Roslyn. However, thanks in part to the forest stewardship efforts of Plum Creek Timber Company (now part of Weyerhaeuser), nearby Suncadia Resort wasn’t scorched because of the installation of a fuel break around the property, and selectively harvesting parts of the forest around it.
Results were similar in 2016 in the Umatilla National Forest straddling Washington and Oregon. The thinning of 3,300 forest acres prevented the Weigh Station Fire from burning out of control.
6. Different Strategies Work in Different Circumstances
While some would prefer a one-size-fits-all approach to forest management, circumstances vary and require different strategies. Each landowner has a different objective, and each landowning public agency operates under a different set of rules and directives. Tribal landowners have specific goals and regulations as well. Laws, therefore, must allow for flexibility when it comes to forest management, as long as those laws adhere to sustainable practices.
If we want our forests to thrive, we can't simply protect all trees and douse all fires. We need a balanced approach that includes logging and prescribed burns to encourage the natural harmony of the forest landscape. Once we do that, we will have fewer concerns about uncontrolled wildfires consuming our human habitat.