Clark County has avoided wildfire catastrophe throughout 2021.

As the traditional wildfire season nears an end, we have avoided the smoky haze that has engulfed the region in recent years, when fires near and far sent their smoke toward Southwest Washington. That is largely the luck of the draw and not indicative of the wildfire season in the state; more than 650,000 acres have burned in Washington.

For this corner of the state, a one-year respite is not necessarily a harbinger for the future; wildfires are a fact of life in the Northwest, and climate change has exacerbated their frequency and intensity. That calls for continued diligence from state and local officials in preparing for wildfires.

“The reason we have such catastrophic wildfires is forests are dying,” state lands commissioner Hilary Franz said in early September, echoing an oft-repeated narrative. “In Eastern Washington alone, we have 2.7 million acres of forests that are dying, leading to larger fires. We are seeing the similar dying off of forests on the west side of the state.

“Our forests are capable of fighting fire on their own if they’re healthy, if they’re not weak, if they’re not dead, if they’re not diseased. The problem is they are so sick that all it takes is a spark and where 100 acres might have burned before, we now have 100,000 acres that are burning. And we have that not just in one or two locations, but all throughout the state.”

The Legislature this year approved House Bill 1168, which will provide dedicated funding of $125 million every two years to boost wildfire response and forest health. Franz said the funding will help with the development and implementation of a 20-year forest health plan “with the goal that we can get in there, remove the dead, dying or diseased trees, and enable the healthier trees to get healthy so they can withstand and fight fire on their own.”

That, however, will take years or generations to have an impact. In the meantime, state officials throughout the West must rethink the process for preventing and suppressing wildfires.

Notably, about 1 million Washington homes are at risk of being damaged in a wildfire. And Franz said, “That number’s growing every single day due to COVID-19, and more and more people realizing they can live and work from anywhere.”

For about a decade, California has mandated fire-resistant building codes for construction in high-risk areas. But NPR reports: “Most states don’t require rebuilding with fire-resistant materials, and homebuilder associations have mounted stiff opposition to proposals to do so.”

In Washington, Kittitas County east of the Cascade Range has fire-resistant codes for new construction. And the Legislature in 2018 passed a bill easing the way for changes to building standards in other parts of the state. Local governments must adopt codes requiring fire-resistant roofs, siding and decks, along with other preventive measures for homes in what is dubbed the wildland-urban interface area.

Those efforts must continue. So must innovative approaches to dealing with wildfires. As wrote this week: “A growing number of experts want people to rethink what it means to prepare for the worst, focusing on the ways that wildfires in the West can be managed and controlled over time, rather than simply extinguishing them as fast as possible.”

Clark County has largely avoided the impact of wildfires this summer. But this is no time for complacency.

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