WENATCHEE — Washington residents may soon see prescribed fire return to places where it hasn’t been seen in some time — on lands owned and managed by the state Department of Natural Resources.

"Prescribed fire is one of many tools,” says Washington State Forester George Geissler, DNR’s chief forestry official. “So it’s always been considered good science to utilize it where it meets the objectives and the conditions, but it’s always been kind of limited based on other factors outside of the science."

Those factors include the perception of safety for communities near a controlled burn, and declines in air quality related to forest smoke. Large public landowners, like the U.S. Forest Service, have performed prescribed burning for years, depending on weather, moisture, and air quality. But DNR has largely refrained from using it over the last two decades.

Now Geissler’s boss, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, says planned and precise burning is back on the table as part of ongoing strategic plans for Washington’s forests.

The state says about 2.7 million acres of forestland in central and eastern Washington need to be treated somehow to make them more resistant to fire, insects and disease. DNR wants prescribed burning to be employed in those acres, alongside mechanical thinning, in the next 20 years.

“We’re planning a couple of thousand acres of prescribed burning over the next couple of years,” Geissler says. “We’re gradually ramping up our capacity to do so.”

Last year a pilot project conducted 15 burn projects on 8,000 acres around the state. A report found those burns efficiently reduced fuels, and created air pollution that was insignificant or moderate at worst for nearby communities.

“One of the big issues with prescribed burning is smoke,” says DNR wildlife biologist Ken Bevis. “And so this question of how do you want your smoke — do you want it a little bit at a time, when people are prescribed burning, or do you want it like we had last summer? Heaven forbid. I mean, we had some of the worst air quality in the world.”

DNR biologist Ken Bevis works with private landowners who own anywhere from five to 2,000 acres of forest lands. That’s about 215,000 landowners who own 3.2 million acres — 50 percent of the private forestland in the state of Washington. Those landowners could also make use of prescribed fire, although it requires lots of expensive safety steps.

“You would need to make sure that you had secure boundaries — roads, firelines — hoses, a crew standing there before you torched it off,” Bevis says. “… But it’s totally the way to go when you can, because when you’re done, you’ve reduced the fuels, your trees are spaced out, your forest is healthier, and you don’t have to do it again for 15 years.” 

Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013 

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