Politics & Government

Forest-thinning could help prevent another year of destructive fires, state officials say

Ann Stanton credits a state program with saving her home from the worst wildfire in Washington’s history.

Despite her property being in the path of the Carlton Complex fire, which scorched about 256,000 acres in Okanogan and Chelan counties last summer, Stanton’s home and the trees around it survived with minimal damage.

It wasn’t just luck. A year earlier, Stanton and her husband worked with the state Department of Natural Resources to thin the trees on their 20-acre property, reducing the wildfire’s ability to spread.

“It made all the difference in the world for us,” Stanton said last month. “The house was completely spared. If you could ignore the black trunks on some of the ponderosa pines, you could imagine the fire had never happened.”

DNR officials think thinning and restoring more forests on public and private lands throughout the state could help prevent another wildfire season like 2014, which was the most destructive in state history.

The agency is asking the Legislature to quintuple the amount spent on forest hazard reduction in the next two years — a $20 million request that state forester Aaron Everett called “ambitious and aggressive.”

“We think it’s warranted in light of the fire season we just had,” Everett said.

Last summer’s wildfires burned more than 410,000 acres throughout Washington, far surpassing the average of 60,000 acres burned annually during the previous five years.

The 2014 fires also destroyed more than 340 homes, said Peter Goldmark, the state’s commissioner of public lands.

About $17 million of the money that DNR is requesting would go toward thinning forests, while the rest would be spent on replanting areas damaged by wildfires and working with communities to prevent fire damage.

Two years ago, DNR made a similar $20 million request for forest health projects and received $4 million for thinning forests throughout the state.

But some lawmakers think there will be more support for preventative measures this year after last year’s fire season.

“The forest health stuff is a no-brainer for me,” said state Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. “The fires are only going to get worse if we don’t do that.”

COST OF FIGHTING FIRES RISING

In the past five years, the state has spent about $200 million fighting wildfires, but only about $31 million trying to keep Washington’s forests healthy and less likely to burn.

While dry weather and repeated lightning strikes were part of what made the 2014 fire season so severe, the condition of the state’s forests also was to blame, Everett said.

“Our first line of defense is the condition of the forests,” Everett said. “Right now, our forests are stressed out.”

State officials estimate that about 30 percent of forests in Eastern Washington — about 2.7 million acres — need restoration treatments, such as thinning trees or planting fire- and insect-resistant ones. Government agencies, private landowners and timber companies only complete treatments on about 140,000 acres statewide per year, Everett said.

That has left many Washington forests crowded, filled with small trees and wood debris that fuel fires and make them burn hotter.

The densely packed trees also are forced to compete for light, water and nutrients, making them more susceptible to insect infestation and fire damage, Everett said.

Historically, small fires served to clear some of the trees naturally, but in the past century fire crews have extinguished many of those fires to protect nearby homes and businesses. That has left many forests overgrown and more susceptible to major fires, Everett said.

“The problem is we’ve taken fire out of the forest system in the past century,” said Peter Moulton, the state’s bioenergy policy coordinator. “If you’re going to suppress fire, you have to figure out some way to mimic its role in forest health.”

That’s where thinning and controlled burning comes in. During thinning, crews will typically remove small saplings and brush while leaving larger trees that are more fire-resistant.

A 2012 assessment from Oregon’s Federal Forest Advisory Committee found that every $1 spent on forest treatments such as thinning potentially avoids $1.45 in fire suppression costs.

Washington’s forest restoration needs, however, far exceed what the state is able to spend.

In many cases in 2014, the fires burned so intensely that firefighting crews couldn’t get close enough to the flames to put them out, he said.

Meanwhile, the forests keep on growing. And state officials expect the annual number of acres burned by fires to nearly double by the 2020s, partly because of warming temperatures and climate change.

“We’re going to get lapped by nature,” Everett told Gov. Jay Inslee and other state officials in September. “We’ve already been lapped by nature, several times around the track.”

WORKING WITH LANDOWNERS

DNR officials estimate about 10 percent of Washington’s unhealthy forest acreage is managed by the state, while about 43 percent belongs to the federal government, 14 percent to tribes and 31 percent to private landowners.

Yet thinning trees on small private properties can be especially expensive, because often the woody debris produced has no commercial value to offset the cost of the work, Everett said.

In fire-prone areas, a DNR grant program offers noncommercial landowners a deal: We’ll pay to remove and chip half the small trees on your property if you handle the rest.

Property owners can either pay for someone to remove excess trees for them, or perform the labor themselves to cover their end of the agreement.

Stanton said the department’s offer to work on her property in 2013 “was just in the nick of time.” A year later, she and her husband saw the Carlton Complex fire come within 50 feet of their home, which lies about 6 miles east of Carlton near Texas Creek.

Unlike nearby properties, the fires on Stanton’s land stayed low to the ground rather than rising to the crowns of the trees, where flames can spread rapidly.

The low temperature of the fires also spared the soil, Stanton said. Grass was growing again in burned areas within days.

“Where the fire got into the trees on nearby properties ... there was a total loss of trees and structures,” Stanton wrote in an email to DNR officials.

The treatments are effective, but costly. Everett estimates that thinning trees and restoring forests on small private lands can total as much as $1,500 to $2,000 an acre.

DNR is seeking $7.5 million in the next two years to work with more private landowners to thin trees on their properties. With that money, the state estimates it could treat 11,500 acres throughout Washington in the next two years, more than doubling the amount of noncommercial thinning performed annually on private lands.

Another $2 million being requested by DNR would pay for crews of military veterans to thin trees and clear brush around 1,500 homes.

DNR also wants $5 million in the next two years to thin about 29,500 acres of state-managed forests, which would include work to prevent insect infections that kill trees and upset forest ecosystems.

Even if the Legislature funds those fire prevention measures, it will be too late to help residents of some communities ravaged by last summer’s fires.

The town of Pateros in Okanogan County lost about 40 of its 220 homes to the Carlton Complex fire, Mayor George Brady told a legislative committee in late November.

Speaking to the same legislative panel, Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody said her area was devastated not just by the fires, but also by the extended power loss and highway closures they caused.

“The subsequent weeks that ensued turned into really months of impact, which we are still dealing with today,” Ing-Moody said. “So the event for us is not over.”

THE CHALLENGE OF FEDERAL FORESTS

Dealing with the federal government is another challenge for state officials who want to improve the condition of Washington’s forests. According to state estimates, the U.S. Forest Service manages 43 percent of Washington’s forests that need preventative treatments such as thinning or replanting.

But the Forest Service has been overwhelmed with the cost of suppressing fires in recent years, forcing it to pull money from its tree-thinning and fire prevention programs to fight wildfires throughout the Western United States.

Some members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — have pushed to free up additional disaster-relief money to help the Forest Service battle fires, but so far they haven’t been able to pass legislation to do so.

Tired of waiting, state officials in Washington are asking the Legislature to contribute $2.3 million to help the federal government get some forest health projects off the ground.

“The Forest Services ability to plan these projects is actually the main bottleneck to getting them going,” Everett said. “What we’d be doing is creating a project plan — it’s not a project itself.”

If the state contributes project planning work, state officials estimate 30,000 additional acres of federal forests could be thinned or otherwise treated to help prevent fires in the next two years.

There could be some resistance among lawmakers, however, to the state paying for what most view as a federal responsibility.

“In my mind that’s kind of sad,” said Blake, the House natural resources committee chairman. “At what point do they want us to start paying for foreign policy and other things?”

“Where does this all end — does the state start paying for federal obligations across the board?”

HARNESSING BIOMASS TO LOWER COSTS

There is some hope that new investments in biofuel technology could help make tree-thinning less expensive.

The tree trimmings and wood debris that are removed during forest health treatments are generally too small to be sold or used as timber. They can, however, be converted into fuel.

State officials say increased biofuel production could create a commercial purpose for forest waste products, commonly referred to as biomass.

Heating up biomass in the absence of oxygen — a process known as pyrolysis — can produce a crude oil that can be refined into plant-based gasoline, diesel or jet fuel.

In the past five years, the state Department of Commerce and DNR have been working to spur businesses’ interest in biofuel production.

The technology to convert forest biomass to crude biofuels has existed for decades, said Moulton, the state’s bioenergy policy coordinator. Yet only recently have private industries begun exploring how the products can become part of a viable business model, he said.

To help get businesses interested in the technology, state agencies have held demonstrations of biomass conversion machinery in action, launched pilot projects at schools, and advised potential investors about the ins and outs of siting biofuel refineries in Washington, Moulton said.

“We want to create markets for forest products to make the economics of forest health treatments work,” Moulton said. “You have to have a whole economic system around it.”

Moulton said that establishing clean fuel standards at the state or federal level would be one way to create a stronger demand for biofuels, but repeated delays in finalizing such rules are causing investors to hesitate.

Still, Moulton said he expects the state’s first commercial biofuel refinery could decide to locate in Washington within the year.

“We don’t have any steel going in the ground yet, but we’re close,” Moulton said.

Everett said that while he thinks the state needs to continue developing a market for biomass, it’s crucial that the Legislature act in the meantime to invest more money into forest restoration.

“We have choices to make about the future of our forests,” Everett said. “I think we’re in a period of time where we’ll decide we’ll recommit to taking care of these resources and sustaining them, or we won’t.”

“It’s not something we can start doing and then stop doing, because that’s how we sort of got into this problem in the first place,” he said.

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