In this first week of summer, we should pause between rainstorms to remind ourselves what is certainly in our future — racing flames, choking smoke, howling dry winds, fear, danger and destruction. Perhaps this year, perhaps next, inevitably they will come.
This is not being melodramatic. We all know the truth of it. We live in tinder. We straddle swaths of irrigable land between the sagebrush steppe and overgrown, crackling dry, fuel-clogged, diseased and neglected forest. Fire is unavoidable. The epidemic of trees brought by a century of fire suppression and a recent lack of effective management is what we face. We had a normal, wet winter, and an on-and-off spring, but the woods desiccate as we speak. The spark will come.
We had best prepare. The National Interagency Fire Center forecasts an above average chance of catastrophic fire in California, Oregon and south-central Washington this season, June through August, and the prediction already is verified. We, slightly more moist, face average fire danger for the season, but we know from experience that is reason to be cautious. Last year, remember, was a wet-enough winter followed by a late fire season choking in smoke and fleeing flames.
So if you live in or near the forest, take sensible precautions. Visit firewise.org, or call the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest or your local fire district for advice on reducing the fire danger near your home. Most recommendations are common sense — build with inflammable materials, skirt decks, remove leaves and needles from eves and gutters, move woodpiles and propane tanks, clear a defensible perimeter, make an evacuation plan, etc.
The rest of us, consider collaborative action. The best move for healthy forests — thinning overgrown stands to a natural state, removing fuels — was until recently proceeding at an agonizingly slow pace across the West, where some 125 million acres need attention. With budget cuts, sequestration and the ruinous costs of the third-worst fire season ever, the Forest Service says it will treat a million fewer acres this year than the year previous. The Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program has been cut to $500 million, less, adjusted for inflation, than the appropriation a decade ago, according to The Associated Press. Automatic budget cuts have lopped $90 million off of that. The Obama administration’s budget would cut $100 million more. Meanwhile, governments spent $1.8 billion fighting wildfires in 2012. It’s an odd time to cut the prevention budget.
Waiting on Washington, D.C., means nothing will happen. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program still helps, uniting agencies, nonprofits, tribes, conservationists, landowners and industry in the effort to restore forest health. The pending reopening of the Colville Indian Plywood and Veneer mill in Omak, and the Winton mill to make wood-and-steel mats, promises not only hundreds of jobs but the rebirth of a regional forest products industry that once again could find value in surplus trees, for a healthier forest.
Collaborative efforts can proceed, even neighborhood associations, drainage by drainage, to help restore forests and reduce fire danger. We must do with what we’ve got, and do it now. We must persevere, for the next storm is coming.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.