The toll is horrific. More than 80 people dead, with hundreds still missing; more than 1,800 structures destroyed; and about 250,000 acres burned. The Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire in California have added to the most destructive wildfire season in that state’s history and produced enough smoke to degrade air quality as far away as Clark County.
For Washington, the blazes have served as an important reminder of the power of wildfires and the need to invest in prevention. They also have thrown a spotlight on a request from state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz for $55 million in fire prevention and firefighting resources.
Franz is asking next year’s Legislature to provide her department with $38 million for operations and $17 million in capital investment. Among other things, the budget would make 30 firefighter jobs year-round positions, adding to the department’s 43 full-time firefighters; would add two helicopters to a fleet of eight; and would increase funding for preparing homes and forest lands to limit the expansion of fires when they do occur.
“What we are seeing in California is an absolute wake-up call for the people of this state,” Franz said. “What’s happening there is very possible on our landscape even though it’s different. We are seeing hotter and drier weather.”
The differences are found in the nature of the land that is burning. The bulk of California’s ongoing fires are not in forests, but in areas with grass and brush. President Trump was quick to blame the blazes on “poor forest management,” but it is not the forests that have led to the loss of lives and buildings. (Trump also absurdly claimed that Finland does not have extensive wildfires because it rakes its forests to remove fire fuel, which we mention only to inject a little comic relief into a serious subject.)
But while forest management has not been a factor in the most recent California fires, it is an issue in Washington. The state Department of Natural Resources, which Franz oversees, estimates that 2.7 million acres of forests are diseased and dying.
One primary factor — along with climate change that results in drier forests — has been the practice of fire borrowing, in which the federal government has taken funds set aside for fire prevention and used them to battle blazes. That led to a cycle of poor maintenance that increased the intensity and frequency of fires and resulted in still more borrowing. The federal government this year finally approved a plan to end the practice and fully fund preventive measures.
Franz says the benefits of treating forests by thinning them and using prescribed burns are readily apparent. “If you ever look at an area where the forest has been treated, fire almost literally stops right at the area of the forest that has been treated,” she said. “It becomes its own natural buffer.” Washington this year had about 1,700 wildfires, nearly a state record. But a little more than 350,000 acres burned, far from the record of more than 1 million acres in 2015.
With climate change making lands more susceptible to fire and with humans increasingly encroaching on forested areas, wildfires promise to be an ever more urgent issue. And it is one that impacts all of Washington, with about 40 percent of this year’s wildfires being reported on the west side of the Cascades.
That calls for robust investment. When it comes to wildfires, we can pay to limit them now or we can pay for them later.