Creating healthier forests and making firefighting safer

The 2014 wildfire season for Washington was unlike any other with more than 1,400 wildfires burning nearly 390,000 acres of private, state federal and tribal lands.

As bad as 2014 was, the 2015 wildfire season proved even worse with more than one million acres burning across the state from June to September. The Okanogan Complex fire surpassed the previous year’s Carlton Complex fire as the largest in state history and tragically claimed the lives of three firefighters. President Barack Obama declared the fire a national emergency and fire managers from as far away as Australia and New Zealand arrived in the state to lend assistance. At one point, firefighting efforts included nearly 3,000 personnel and numerous military and civilian aircraft.

After back-to-back record-breaking wildfire seasons, an effort was launched by local citizens, local governments, legislators and firefighting officials to fix several inadequacies in state wildfire fighting procedures.

One of the most glaring weaknesses in the state’s wildfire strategy was the inability to allow local firefighting assets to engage fires quickly before they escalated into massive events. The bureaucracy and unwillingness of state agencies to cede any amount of control was hurting local communities more than helping.

Rep. Joel Kretz was instrumental during 2014 and 2015 by working as a “go-between” for agency/wildfire managers who were directing assets and locals who were watching their homes and livelihoods burn. His firsthand knowledge of the process and the people led him to sponsor several wildfire bills.

One of his bills signed into law in 2017, House Bill 1489, requires the Department of Natural Resources to enter into preemptive wildfire suppression agreements with local contractors and landowners. A master list of available resources at different locales will be available to assist wildfire managers as they engage fires quickly. As Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association said:

“We really need to keep small fires small. And the way to do that is to engage with local private contractors already in the county that know the terrain and are able to step up with short notice.”

Another Kretz bill signed into law in 2017 is House Bill 1711. This legislation aims to make forests more resilient to future wildfires by prioritizing specific tracts of land for healthy forest treatments. Forest treatments could include prescribed burns, thinning, reforestation, sub-landscape assessment, site preparation and possible road realignment.

While walking the land after the 2015 fire, Kretz said the difference between treated and untreated forests was clear. Untreated land was burnt to ash and dust whereas treated forests had a chance at surviving, and in many cases, provided natural firebreaks.

“The commander at the time told me, ‘If you do one thing in Olympia, just one, make sure it’s this. We have to have areas of land that are treated and managed in a way to give us a chance, to put in a successful firebreak here and there.’”

Kretz’s bills will undoubtedly have an impact on future landowners and make fighting wildfires safer.