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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Columns

Other Papers Say: Wildfires change; we must adapt

By The Seattle Times
Published: June 1, 2024, 6:01am

The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

Dwindling mountain snowpack, emergency-level drought conditions, predictions of a hot summer — the warning lights on the 2024 wildfire season are flashing red. This perennial threat requires facing a new reality, particularly among those west of the Cascade Mountains: hotter, drier conditions mean a spark can lead to a catastrophic wildfire, no matter where you are in the state.

A decade ago, fire starts in Eastern Washington were double the number of blazes begun on the west side. No more. Fires on the increasingly tinder-dry west side outnumbered those east of the Cascades for the first time in 2023.

Such Western Washington fires are often more difficult to fight. “The terrain is steep, the trees are huge, and it’s a very dangerous fire environment,” points out Edward Hiatt, an administrator within the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region.

In response to these conditions, the Legislature in 2021 funded a half-billion dollars in investments to prevent forest fires, protect homes and respond more quickly to fire. Disappointingly, the Legislature raided $36 million from that budget in 2023, a year when fires killed two people and destroyed 366 homes near Spokane. Earlier this year, lawmakers corrected that blunder, reinstating the funding. These are critical dollars reducing the chances of catastrophic blazes.

State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz deserves credit for changing lawmakers’ thinking about funding wildfire prevention and response.

Before her tenure, reactionary budgets responded to year-to-year conditions. Under Franz’s leadership, annual funding is making Washington forests more resistant to out-of-control blazes and helping protect homes in wildland areas.

When a fire is spotted, including from a growing network of AI-enhanced cameras around the state, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources now deploys prepositioned aircraft and other resources across Washington to snuff it out quickly. Ninety-five percent of fires started on state lands were extinguished before reaching 10 acres in 2023.

Franz also restarted a prescribed fire program. In 2022, around 11,000 acres were “treated” with underbrush removal, selective logging and preplanned burning. The program will need to grow to 100,000 acres a year to meet state goals. But the efforts are nothing short of an insurance policy against climate change.

Ultimately, preventing fires comes down to each of us. However dry the conditions, nine out of 10 wildfires are sparked by a human, according to the Forest Service.

Memorial Day weekend often ushers in the first family camping trip, backyard barbecue or similarly outdoorsy adventure. One message hasn’t changed: that of 80-year-old Smokey Bear, who has reminded us we hold the destiny of this land in our own hands.