Late Pacific Northwest summers have become synonymous with wildfire haze that blankets our region. While 2023 provided a respite from recent trends, we have become all too familiar with the challenges of moving our kids’ playtime indoors, canceling camping trips and seeking refuge on the gym treadmill. More significantly, wildfire smoke poses serious threats to vulnerable populations, including the immunocompromised, older adults and outdoor workers who can ill afford to forgo work despite unhealthy conditions.
The acceleration of smoky days is not just imagined; wildfires are increasingly disrupting our daily lives. The average acres burned by wildfire in Washington has increased nearly five-fold since the 1990s, and the state’s wildfire season has grown longer, more intense and more destructive.
These wildfires are a symptom of multiple ailments affecting our forests, including a lack of forest management, declining forest health, and hotter, drier summers brought on by climate change. Our forests are out of balance, and these trends will continue for decades if we do not take committed action. Wildfire smoke is rolling back decadeslong progress in improved air quality, with additional degradation expected as the climate warms. Studies show that forest fires throughout the U.S. and Canada are expected to intensify and pose additional threats to public health and safety.
These fires threaten homes and human health, and they reduce the carbon storage benefits our forests provide. Forests are one of the most important tools we have in the fight against climate change, yet the high rates of tree mortality may soon turn some of our forests into net carbon emitters rather than carbon sinks.
Fortunately, we have science-based approaches at our fingertips to improve the health outcomes of our forests. Active forest management, a sustainable practice that can include activities like thinning, timber harvest, prescribed fire and understory removal, are proven to promote forest health and resiliency and reduce the risk of forest loss.
Most private forest owners in the state practice active management, and data show the impressive reduction in all types of tree mortality on private forestlands compared to their unmanaged counterparts. Trees in national forests are nearly six times as likely to die from fire, nearly nine times as likely to die from insect infestation and more than twice as likely to die from disease compared to trees on private forests.
Forest management and upkeep also provide additional benefits to communities, including rural economic development and environmentally friendly building materials.
State and federal governments have enacted programs in the Pacific Northwest to improve the resiliency of our forests in the greatest need of support. Washington’s Department of Natural Resources adopted a strategic forest health plan that incorporates proven, effective forest management strategies, including prescribed fire, thinning and harvest. The U.S. Forest Service also recently invested $16.2 million to improve forest health across tribal, state, and private lands.
Though these initiatives are essential steps in the right direction, they will not keep pace with what is needed to reduce forest losses.
If we fail to improve forest health in our region, we can expect decades of air-quality degradation, continued threats to homes and human lives, and forests that act as carbon emitters, not carbon sinks. We will no longer eagerly await the later summer months through the wet, dreary winter and spring. Put simply, if we care about healthy air, our glorious summers and climate change, we should support and encourage active forest management.
Olivia Jacobs is a Pacific Northwest native with nearly 10 years of experience in environmental consulting, forestry, and forest carbon management. She is founder of Xyla Land and Resource Advisors.