Thursday, December 8, 2022
Dec. 8, 2022

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In Our View: Addressing climate change will aid wildfire fight

The Columbian

While Western Washington so far has avoided the hazy skies and cough-inducing air that sometimes symbolize wildfire season, other parts of the state have not been so lucky.

Last week, the 500-resident town of Lind in southeastern Washington was evacuated. A wildfire destroyed homes and other structures, leading one resident to say, “You read about and see it on TV all the time, but until you live through it, you have no idea.” A conflagration known as the Vantage Highway Fire ravaged Central Washington. The nearby Cow Canyon Fire created concerns near Ellensburg.

It is fire season in Washington, an annual rite that has grown in duration and intensity in recent years thanks, in part, to climate change.

As state Wildfire Division Manager Russ Lane said last week: “While that early wet spring did give us a delayed start to the fire season, it also promoted a lot of growth of fine fuels, especially on the Columbia Basin. With our most recent heat dome, those fuels have come online with a vengeance so we’re seeing very active fire behavior.”

Much of Washington has experienced an extended heat wave that has set records for its duration if not high temperatures. That has served to dry trees and underbrush, creating ideal conditions for the quick spread of fires.

“As we’ve seen just in the last few days, the fires in our state have now started to grow as we’ve seen increasing hot temperatures and obviously significant wind conditions,” Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Friday during a virtual news conference.

“These conditions are not unexpected, but the recent fires have been very difficult to control. Those windy conditions have led to extreme fire behavior, making suppression very challenging as the fires shift directions rapidly and unpredictably.”

When he was president, Donald Trump suggested that raking forest floors would help mitigate the risk of wildfires. In truth, it will take more than that.

Effective management that focuses on the health of forests, including clearing diseased trees that serve as fuel, is one necessary strategy. So is the clearing of underbrush that turns into kindling. So is quickly addressing climate change to slow the use of climate-warming fossil fuels.

Steps have been taken in recent years to enact these strategies. The Legislature in 2021 approved $125 million over two years for wildfire prevention and response, including an emphasis on forest health. The U.S. Department of Agriculture early this year announced that nearly $3 billion from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act would be added to states’ forest restoration and fire reduction efforts.

That money will not immediately reduce the threat of wildfires; conditions built over decades of inattentiveness will require years to reverse. But new attention to the issue provides hope for a less smoky future in the Northwest.

As Franz said this year: “It gives me great confidence that we’re going to start to make significant progress on some of the challenges we’ve had with increasing catastrophic wildfires in Central Washington, as well as increased dying off of those forests.”

In a state covered with 22 million acres of forests — about half of Washington — wildfires are a fact of life that predate the arrival of humans in the area. But recent years have made clear that conditions have changed and that strong management is necessary. The alternative is an increasing frequency of hazy skies and cough-inducing air.