SEATTLE — Washington’s wildfire seasons are arriving earlier, and that’s probably not good news for anyone hoping to avoid a repeat of the sun-choking smoke that has afflicted Seattle and much of the rest of the state for the last couple of summers.
So what’s being done to prepare for and contain the blazes? On Episode 107 of The Overcast, The Seattle Times news and politics podcast, we put those questions to state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, the elected official who manages state forestland and wildfire-fighting efforts.
She offers a somewhat grim prognosis for the 2019 wildfire season, starting with the fact that it has already begun — with 54 fires breaking out during a single week in March.
“We’ve never had 54 fires in the second week of March — 53 of them west of the Cascades,” Franz says. The blazes hit in Southwest Washington, with one leading to the evacuation of more than 100 homes in Cowlitz County. As of this week, Franz’s agency has responded to 239 wildfires, compared with 131 at this time last year.
The fires have mostly been started by humans, whether from burn piles or a car losing a tire and shooting sparks as metal scraped the road. That’s normal. What’s new, says Franz, is that previously wet Western Washington forestland is becoming a much more vulnerable tinderbox. Rainfall this year is at about two-thirds of normal levels.
“What people aren’t used to is that the landscape has become so dry so early,” she says. That’s an effect of climate change that is expected to continue to make fires across the Western U.S. worse.
Making it worse, Washington’s forests are unhealthy, shot through with infestations and disease.
“We have in Washington state a forest-health crisis. We have in Central and Eastern Washington alone, 2.7 million acres of forests that are dying,” Franz says. She explains a state plan to push increased thinning, controlled burns and brush clearing to make the forests more resilient.
Franz’s agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), manages 5.6 million acres of forest, range and other lands, and is in the process of hiring 550 seasonal firefighters to bolster its force of 43 full-time firefighters. The agency also has seven helicopters — but they date back to the Vietnam War.
DNR has sought to revamp the way the agency prepares for fires and manages its forest lands. Franz this year unsuccessfully sought to persuade the Legislature to create a permanent wildfire fund, funded by a small increase in taxes on property and casualty insurance premiums. The measure died after opposition from insurance companies.
Lawmakers did approve nearly $50 million in new funding for wildfire response and forest-health work over the next two years.