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The bureaucracy of burning: Washington DNR hopes state money will come in to fund more prescribed burns

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 13, 2024, 10:19am

Spokane — Managing a fire is both a science and an art.

Containing a wildfire is like painting a mural — the big picture is the most important, there’s less control over the details and it takes a while to complete.

A prescribed burn, where agencies intentionally char land to keep forests in top shape, is like a watercolor — the timing is extremely important to layer one color on top of another and there’s more control over the details.

That’s how fire scientist Kate Williams describes the difference between the two types of fires.

Williams is the assistant division manager for Planning, Science, and Monitoring at the Washington State Department of Natural Resource’s Forest Resilience Division.

Fire has always been an important part of forest health, Williams said. Historically, that was through natural fire starts usually from lightning or through cultural application from Indigenous peoples, she said.

Now, with so many people living in the wildland urban interface, there has a been a decadeslong buildup of fuels.

Back in 2006, DNR stopped using prescribed fire to ensure forest health, largely over air quality concerns, said Andrew Stenbeck, East Uplands manager in the Northeast Region.

People were frustrated by the smoke, he said. “We lost our social license.”

Things have changed a lot in the last dozen or so years, both in the public’s tolerance for smoke and in the science of fire.

Since 2015, Eastern Washington has experienced extreme wildfire smoke, sometimes for weeks on end, Stenbeck pointed out.

The size, frequency and intensity of the fires, along with the smoke, prompted the Washington Legislature to make a massive investment of $120 million in long-term forest health in 2022.

But the next year, some of that money was taken back instead and the Legislature transferred only $89.8 million to DNR, leaving a $23.4 million gap DNR hopes will be filled in this year’s budget.

If the funding isn’t restored, DNR said that could result in 1,000 acres previously set to be treated going untouched. It could also limit future burns because two regional coordinators to help plan cross-boundary burns likely wouldn’t be hired.

The science

While it might seem like all fire is the same, that’s just not the case, Williams said.

“Sometimes you won’t see a difference,” Williams said, of prescribed fire versus a wildfire. “Wildfire has a lot more variability.”

At a prescribed fire site, regrowth is typically faster because the speed and temperature of the burn is more controlled.

“What prescribed fire tries to do is mirror that natural pattern,” she said.

Historically, areas would burn every decade or so, eliminating the buildup of fuels. With decades of buildup in some areas now, the blaze can be extreme if a wildfire comes through.

When a fire gets too hot, it can prevent regrowth.

“Unfortunately with wildfires where you do have that perfect combination with really intense conditions,” Williams said, “we often call it sterilization.”

That’s why maintenance is key when talking about prescribed fire. Often, burns are needed every 10 to 30 years, she said.

“Maintenance is key,” Williams said. “Prescribed fire isn’t something that you do just once.”

Returning to prescribed burns

When Stenbeck started at DNR in 1992, the agency was still conducting prescribed burns.

People learned on the job, he said. There would be a three- or four-page plan, and then people who had been fighting fire for decades would go out and burn the area.

“Fire has come a long way since then,” Stenbeck said.

Now it’s a 50- or 60-page plan full of scientific analysis carried about by people with certifications that take decades to obtain, he said.

While DNR stopped prescribed burns, federal land management continued the practice.

Jeff Dimke, the prescribed fire program manager for DNR, was hired after retiring from a career at the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Dimke helped relaunch the program for DNR. It took about two years from authorization to doing the first prescribed burn, he said.

Only a few people at DNR are as highly certified as Dimke. To reach the status of burn boss 2, the second-highest certification, it can take 10 to 15 years.

“You can become a doctor or a lawyer faster than you can a burn boss,” Dimke said.

The gap in qualifications has left DNR with a lower capacity to run its own burns, he said. While hundreds of employees have begun training, getting to full capacity will take time.

“We’re still kind of operating on a very small scale compared to where we need to be,” Dimke said.

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Prescribed burns require a prescription with certain factors that must be met to ignite the area, including weather and moisture in the fuels. The perfect window often comes on the shoulders of fire season in the region when resources are especially tight.

The cost for a burn ranges from $25 an acre up to $2,000 an acre, he said. Usually, the larger the burn, the lower the cost per acre.

For example, this summer’s burn at Boggs Pitt required coordination with Stevens, Pend Oreille and Spokane counties along with surrounding home owners, all factors that made the burn more expensive.

Community involvement

While surrounding communities will still get smoke from prescribed burns, it’s often less smoke for a shorter amount of time than from a wildfire, Williams said.

“As a community, you’re still going to have impact, but that duration is a lot shorter,” she said. “It’s not better smoke for you, it’s just less in the long term.”

Often, a wildfire is something that happens to a community, Williams said, but with prescribed fire, the community has a chance to be involved.

“Prescribed fire is part of community management,” she said. “You can literally be hands-on.”

The idea of engaging in forest management can be intimidating for some, Williams acknowledged. The best place to start, Williams said, is by signing up for the Washington Prescribed Fire Council’s mailing list at waprescribedfire.org.