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News / Clark County News

Lands commissioner Franz joins Columbian Conversations event on intensifying wildfire seasons in region

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 25, 2024, 6:08am

Wildfires are growing in frequency and intensity across Washington, leaving residents in communities unaccustomed to them wondering how to live with fire.

Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in Southwest Washington” covers just that. Associate Editor Will Campbell will moderate a discussion among a panel of experts and leaders who are familiar with the region’s intensifying wildfire season. The free event begins at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver.

The event series is an element of the newspaper’s Community Funded Journalism initiative — a means to further dialogue surrounding issues that touch community members’ lives. The first event focused on homelessness.

Panelists include Hilary Franz, Washington public lands commissioner; Scott Johnson, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency emergency management division manager; Michael McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District wildfire resilience technician; John Nohr, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue fire chief; and Marc Titus, Department of Natural Resources community wildfire resilience coordinator.

Columbian Conversations: Wildfires in SW Washington

Wildfire season. Smoke season. It’s now a part of our lives in Southwest Washington. Smoke drifts in from beyond our borders — and now wildfires are igniting in our backyards. As summer approaches we are all asking: Will our air fill with smoke?

The Columbian Conversation, hosted by Associate Editor Will Campbell, will uncover what’s happening and what we can do about it. The event will feature Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, a firefighter who has struggled to contain a blaze on the front lines, an expert on the science of ecosystems after a fire rips through a forest and an emergency services manager on how people should respond to this new and growing threat.

Panelists Include:

Hilary S. Franz, Commissioner of Public Lands

John Nohr, Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue fire chief

Michael McNorvell, Underwood Conservation District

Scott Johnson, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency

Marc Titus, Washington State Department of Natural Resources

When: 4:30p.m. Feb. 1

Where: The Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver


They will delve into wildfire basics. Other topics include how ecosystems are changing amid the growing frequency of severe burns; paths government agencies and nonprofits are taking to navigate new fiery territory, as well as the struggles they face; and how Southwest Washington residents can learn to live with fire.

Fighting wildfires has transformed in the state in recent years with investments to suppression equipment, crews and training. However, the event comes weeks after Franz and other state officials urged lawmakers to restore cuts made to the Department of Natural Resources’ wildfire preparedness and response programs. Cuts “would signal to our partners, both commercial and in the public sector, that the state cannot be counted on to fulfill promised long-term investments” in these efforts, Franz wrote in an email to The Columbian.

“We know that there is no malice intended by these proposed cuts,” she said, noting the 2022 and 2023 fire seasons were less severe than in years prior. “What they reflect within the larger conversation about fire safety is a little bit of complacency.”

But these less severe fire seasons didn’t happen by accident, Franz said; they were a symbol of success from previous investments to the Department of Natural Resources’ programs. The request to sustain these efforts reflects a growing need, as climatologists say wildfires are only going to intensify as summers become longer, drier and more erratic.

Last year, 20,000 acres in Spokane County were destroyed in the Gray and Oregon Road fires.

In early July, the Tunnel Five Fire scorched 529 acres and destroyed multiple homes in Underwood, roughly 2 miles west of White Salmon in the Columbia River Gorge. Forty fire engines, hundreds of firefighters, aerial suppression units and water tenders fought blazes for days. If wind gusts were more prominent, White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler recounted, the event could have paralleled the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire that tore through rolling hills across the river in Oregon, burning 50,000 acres.

Then, in August, the Jenny Creek Fire quickly spread north of La Center. Though it only scorched 32 acres, that fire and the Tunnel Five Fire illustrated how blazes are arriving earlier and with a greater severity. Responders surmised these occurrences may become a new normal.

Fires in landscapes between the Cascade Mountains and the coast — usually wet and not susceptible to fire — are becoming more prominent. Last year, 1,884 fires burned across Washington, more of which were west of the mountains, according to the Department of Natural Resources. This is the second most ignitions in the state’s history.

Those who are interested in joining the conversation can get free advance tickets at columbian.ticketbud.com/columbian-conversationsonwildfires. Any leftover tickets will be available at the door.

“No one is immune from the impacts of wildfire,” Franz said. “Whether it is a fire bearing down on your neighborhood or wildfire smoke blanketing your community for days, or even weeks, we’re all impacted by them, and increasingly so.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer