Investments in wildfire prevention and suppression paid off in Washington this year. Continued diligence is important for keeping blazes manageable and for reducing the threat to lives and property.
“Statewide, we saw the second-most ignitions in Washington’s history this year, including the tragedies that were the Gray and Oregon fires,” said Hilary Franz, who as commissioner of public lands oversees the Department of Natural Resources. “But we kept 95 percent of DNR protection fires under 10 acres and remained well below the 10-year average for acres burned.”
Approximately 165,000 acres in the state burned during the 2023 fire season — well below the 10-year average of 470,000 acres. Franz said that is a testament “to the investments we have made in resources like additional aircraft, more firefighters, better training, and the great work done by firefighters and interagency partners.”
Those investments include $500 million over 10 years from the Legislature to hire more firefighters, fund better equipment and improve forest management. The Department of Natural Resources employs the state’s largest firefighting force, and this year it was assisted by the placement of 40 aircraft around the state to improve response time when a blaze is sparked.
Enhancing that response for the first time are 21 infrared cameras at high elevations, constantly watching for signs of fire.
Officials also credit a collaborative approach from the state department. “There’s much broader cooperation today than there has been in the past,” Steve Wright, executive director of the Washington Fire Chiefs, told The Seattle Times. “Franz reached out to break down barriers and DNR is much more at the table than before.”
In addition to seeking funding for fire prevention and suppression, Franz has helped develop a 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan to improve forest resiliency, and she has helped develop her department’s initial Plan for Climate Resilience.
The DNR website specifies: “By actively managing our forests — using strategies such as prescribed burns and thinning — we can restore forests to a more natural and resilient condition. We can bring our forests back to health, boost jobs in rural Washington, and reduce the threat of wildfires.”
Yet despite a relatively calm fire season in Washington, we have been reminded of the growing threat of wildfires fueled by climate change. Canada has had major fires in all 13 provinces, combining for a record-setting season in that nation. Smoke from Canadian fires reached Clark County, shrouded the eastern United States for days at a time and even wafted over Europe.
And in August, an inferno on the Hawaiian island of Maui killed at least 99 people and destroyed more than 2,000 buildings.
Such calamities are fueled by climate change. Warming temperatures dry out vegetation, turning it into kindling. The heat also is detrimental to forest health, increasing the number of diseased, dying and dead trees and leaving wooded areas ill-equipped to ward off even small sparks.
The fact that wildfires affected regions that are unaccustomed to them helped bring national attention to the issue this summer, even as Washington was enjoying a mild fire season. Ideally, those fires also brought awareness to necessary strategies for limiting the frequency and scope of those fires.
Officials at the federal level and in other states can look to Washington for examples of how to take a proactive approach.