Each year, from late summer into early fall, wildfires leave their mark across much of the Northwest. Heat, drought and unhealthy forest conditions add to the risk of the natural cycle of burning becoming catastrophic blazes. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service announced a new strategy for managing catastrophic wildfires by improving forest health.
Ironically, fire plays a role in healthy landscapes. It clears underbrush and keeps fire fuel levels low. It creates space for new growth, and prompts some trees to release their seeds. Fire also clears out unhealthy trees that can harbor pest infestations, like the bark beetle, which is critical as large infestations create swaths of dead wood – fuel for large fires. But if forest land isn’t actively managed, fuel builds up allowing catastrophic wildfires to burn thousands of acres in days, or even hours, putting property and lives in danger. Improving forest health is key to reducing the damage from catastrophic wildfires.
“The challenges before us require a new approach,” Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen says in a press release outlining the USFS priorities. “This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders mitigate to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks. We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them.”
In 2017, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources rolled out a 20-year plan to improve the health of state forests. Information was gathered from agencies and organizations with backgrounds in forest conservation, the timber industry, science, as well as local, state, federal and tribal leadership.
Of the 10 million acres of forested land in Eastern Washington, nearly 2.7 million acres needs restoration to make it more resilient to insects, disease and wildfires, the plan says. This involves implementing science-driven methods for preventing and reducing catastrophic wildfires.
Restoration projects require time, but already are showing results. Vaagen Brothers Lumber has been working with federal, state and local leaders to improve forest health at Colville National Forest through improved forest management techniques including thinning trees and doing stream restoration, replacing culverts for improved fish passage and better water quality. Their “A to Z” forest restoration project includes 54,000 acres, with work over a decade. Colville National Forest was on the top three forest producers in 2017.