More wildfires in western Washington state boost firefighting funding and training
by Jack Russillo
Washington Fire Season 2021 has already started and the forecast says that it could be as bad as – and potentially worse than – the 2020 season which saw nearly a million acres burn and more wildfires than historic Fire season 2015.
In the last session, the State Legislative Assembly passed the House bill 1168 who will allocate over $ 125 million over the next two years, to firefighting and forest restoration efforts across the state to tackle wildfires, an increasingly destructive problem for Washingtonians on the west side of the Cascades, even in urban areas. Over the past decades, more people have moved to forest land, and this creates more challenges in responding to forest fires at the borders of urban areas, the bill says.
“Because the climate is changing, we in western Washington are experiencing a drier climate and we had wildfires in March, which is pretty much unheard of,” said Battalion Commander Brian Dodge of the Puget Sound Fire Authority. “This is an issue that everyone here on the west side needs to be aware of. And because of milder winters and hotter summers, it will continue. It’s all about climate change. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you are on, it just happens. Because our times are changing, it puts us at greater risk for these fires. And because we haven’t had these fires on a regular basis, which leaves a lot of dead and blown fuel on the ground, exposing us to more intense forest fires.
Already this year, a the burning ban was in effect until the last week of April, when the Report of the National Meteorological Service that Sea-Tac recorded seven consecutive days of at least 70 degrees of weather last month, breaking the previous record of six consecutive days set earlier in April.
the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) replied to more than 90 fires in a single week in mid-April this year, of which about 50 acre grass and wood fire east of Auburn. At the end of the month, 280 forest fires had burned approximately 700 acres across the state, including an all-time high of 224 fires in April, surpassing the record set in April 2020.
Nearly half of Washington, including parts of the state’s west coast, is currently experiencing “moderate drought,” according to the National Integrated Drought Information System – a situation which may increase the risk of fire. Twenty percent of the state, mostly in Southeast Washington, experiences “severe drought,” where widespread dry grasses can contribute to more wildfires.
“The fire season will be similar to what it was last year,” said Dodge. “We’re going to have a pretty active wild season.”
According to data provided by the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which does not count fires on MNR lands, 25 fires of at least five acres have been reported in Washington this year through the end of April. Eleven of them occurred in western Washington.
“It’s not just an Eastside issue anymore,” Janet Pearce, MNR communications manager, said in an email. “Some of the worst fires last April were in western Washington. We have a long way to go, but this bill can help us turn the tide in the years to come.
While there were roughly the same number of wildfires in the west side of the state during the same time frame in 2020, the fires occurred earlier in 2021. The first fire in County of King of at least five acres in 2020 came in May, but by the end of April 2021, the county had already had three. In Pierce County, where the first five-acre fire did not occur until July 2020, four fires of at least five acres were reported as of the end of April this year.
Wildfires on the west side of the state have become larger and more frequent in recent decades, affecting the growing number of people moving through forested areas. Approximately $ 20 million of funds from HB 1168 will go to “Community Resilience,” which will take the form of education and outreach to local state firefighting authorities to help prevent “community resilience” fires. forest / urban interface ”, which increased as more people moved to neighborhoods close to wooded areas.
According to the bill, “the number of small forest land owners increased by 8.5 percent from 201,000 in 2007 to 218,000 in 2019. The number of small forest land owners increased by 2 , 1 percent, from 256,500 to 261,800. This rapid change in land use creates significant challenges for the implementation of actions to combat forest health and forest fires in the urban interface wild lands. “
“The more populated we are, the more we integrate the interface,” said Dodge. “The further we get into the woods, it’s no different having more forays with bears and mountain lions and that sort of thing. Now we have forays with all the flora and fauna, all the trees and so forth. When we build a house in this area, we build a house with all that fuel around it.
New strategies, use of equipment and training specifically for fire management in these interface areas are being developed and taught across the country. In the Puget Sound area, the South King County Fire Training Consortium is the agency that trains all fire departments in South King County, and it is the only department in the country that has the capacity to teach its own instructors important new training on the forest / city interface . The training is designed for firefighters who normally fight structural fires and teaches them strategies to manage fires in populated areas near sections of forest and prevent them from spreading further into the interface or onto other structures. . Dodge, who was one of 10 instructors chosen from across the country to teach this training on the forest / urban interface, held training for local fire departments in March that will help them better meet challenges presented by interface fires between urban and wilderness areas.
Passage of Internal Bill 1168 will provide the necessary funds to increase training opportunities as the interface between wildlands and urban areas to help improve MNR’s forest fire management efforts, but it will also add expensive equipment and resources that will be used in tandem with local fire departments when needed. assistance for a large fire near suburban centers.
“[The DNR has] resources we just don’t have, ”said Jordan Simmonds, wildland fire instructor for the South King County Training Consortium. “Helicopters, bulldozers, crews of 20, to name a few. This will be of great help to us. As these funds become available, they will become extremely useful, not only to protect their lands, but also to be able to help their partners, their neighbors, like us. “
Landowners and residents of the forest / city interface can also take steps to prepare their homes and learn about forest fire risks. People can check how Firewise their homes and properties are, as well as what “S-FACTS” factors used by firefighters to determine how they handle a fire to help them and where landowners can find room to improve their readiness.
“These fires are something we might have been able to avoid in the past,” said Simmonds. “Now it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we can’t do without it anymore.”
Jack russillo has been reporting in West Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
📸 Featured Image: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee stands alongside firefighters as they monitor the scene during the 2020 fire season. The image is credited to the Flickr account of Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee (under Creative Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0 Licence).
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