In the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to forget that just 10 weeks ago Washington was facing an additional crisis: Much of the state, including urban areas in Clark County, was blanketed by smoke from a series of wildfires.
The Pearl Hill Fire in Douglas and Okanogan counties eventually burned 223,731 acres, making it the second largest in state history. For perspective, that is more than half the total acreage of Clark County. Closer to home, the Big Hollow Fire, near Yale Reservoir, burned about 25,000 acres.
Wildfires are a fact of life in this part of the country; when more than half the state is forestland, fires are an annual occurrence, and they are growing in size and intensity because of climate change. While we are accustomed to fires, an analysis by public media organization Crosscut, using a database compiled by the state Department of Natural Resources, still provides some insight.
Notably, the Department of Natural Resources — the state’s largest firefighting agency — responded this year to 1,851 fires, the highest total this decade. While the largest blazes tend to be east of the Cascades, 31 percent of the state’s wildfires were on the more populous west side of the mountains.
That plays into an ongoing debate regarding fire prevention and fire suppression. With people and structures increasingly encroaching on the wildland-urban interface, quick suppression has become the goal — stopping a fire before it endangers homes or heavily populated areas.
In Washington, urban growth boundaries defined by the Growth Management Act help create well-managed expansion rather than the sprawl seen in many states.
That has an impact that extends well beyond the danger posed by wildfires. As state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler explained to The Columbian’s Editorial Board: “We want to make sure the insurance industry doesn’t leave the market. Trying to dictate that by statute is not as effective as the market and smart land-use policy.”
On top of all that is a growing awareness of forest management and the impact it has on wildfires. The share of the U.S. Forest Service budget devoted to fighting fires has risen from 15 percent to 55 percent in recent years, leaving less money for fire prevention.
Congress recently put an end to the practice of “fire borrowing” — using prevention money for suppression, thereby creating a cycle of more devastating blazes. But the thinning of forests to reduce fuel for fires remains underfunded. Hilary Franz, the state commissioner of public lands, told The Columbian: “The federal lands are the worst forest health crisis in the state.”
According to Crosscut, about 80 percent of Washington wildfires over the past 12 years have been started by humans. (Four of those have been classified as “grudge fires” — intentionally started because of an argument or grudge.) Caution when in the woods or burning debris is still the best way to prevent wildfires.
Still, preparing for the inevitability of fires must be a priority for the Legislature and for citizens throughout the state.
As the DNR’s Angie Lane said: “It’s all about preparedness. We live in the West. We’re always going to have fire. If they’re in one of those environments where fire happens every year — like Spokane County — then it’s up to the community working with fire agencies to do what they need to do to protect themselves.”
Because as soon as one fire season concludes, it is time to start thinking about the next one.