Limiting the dangers of wildfire season in Central Washington will require prevention, and officials say controlled burns are key component.
State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has made it clear the Department of Natural Resources needs to put more resources into prescribed fires. Meanwhile, other agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife want to keep ramping up their ongoing efforts amid difficult conditions.
“It was kind of a wet spring, on and off,” WDFW prescribed fire manager Matt Eberlein said. “Then it got really hot and dry and then it would get wet again.”
WDFW came up a little short of its goals this spring, when it burned 1,500 acres on wildlife areas across Washington. More burning is planned for this fall, including close to 100 acres in the Oak Creek Wildlife Area west of Naches and almost 300 acres in the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area near Ellensburg.
Eberlein said prescribed fires at L.T. Murray would be more difficult in the fall, since transporting enough water can be difficult without the higher spring river flows. Unfortunately, snow staying on the ground longer at lower elevations pushed all burning back to April, compared to March last year.
Lightning started the Pipeline Fire in the L.T. Murray last week. It burned 6,515 acres 7 miles north of Selah, and is mostly contained.
U.S. Forest Service
Forest Service spokesperson Holly Krake said a cool, moist spring and early summer caused vegetation to turn green quickly, limiting opportunities for burn teams. But the agency has scheduled 25,945 acres for controlled burns in four areas throughout Yakima County, including 19,837 acres northeast of Yakima on the Naches Ranger District.
Krake said 1,170 of those acres are meadows north of Cleman Mountain that could be safely burned this summer. That will depend on if firefighters are needed elsewhere in the area or in places like Alaska, where the Forest Service already sent some crews this month.
“We’re looking at good conditions out there on the ground,” Krake said. “We’re looking at available resources.”
A moderate wildfire season bodes well for prescribed fire, and Krake said the Forest Service was at its lowest possible preparedness level in the Pacific Northwest region until July 22. As storms rolled into the Yakima Valley, the level rose to 2 out of 5, indicating a fire danger at or below normal for this time of year.
Previous fires are helping crews working on the Left Hand Fire now burning near Cliffdell. With less fuel in the 2016 Canteen prescribed burn area and the 2016 Rock Creek Fire area, it is easier for firefighters to connect containment lines on the eastern and northeastern flanks of the fire, officials said Wednesday.
Reese Lolley said opportunities for prescribed fires this fall will vary depending on weather the rest of the summer. As the chair of Washington’s Prescribed Fire Council and The Nature Conservancy’s director of forest restoration and fire, he helps coordinate between agencies and tracks burning throughout the region.
“It just depends on how much moisture we get,” Lolley said. “But it’s fairly predictable that we’ll get cooling in mid-September and recovery of moisture and so forth and be able to move forward.”
That’s why the council scheduled its fourth Cascadia Prescribed Fire Training Exchange for Sept. 29 to Oct. 11. The two-week program led by Kara Karboski of the Washington Resource Conservation and Development Council will train participants from the Forest Service, DNR, WDFW and others.
The hands-on training will include burns near Cle Elum and Naches, on lands managed by The Nature Conservancy, WDFW and possibly private landowners. Lolley said they’ve also set up an agreement with the Yakama Nation to establish future burn sites.
Last spring’s exchange trained 18 students from six states and Canada, connected to 15 agencies and organizations. They successfully burned nearly 200 acres, a little less than expected due to weather.
DNR hopes to get more involved this fall after hiring its first prescribed fire program manager, Mike Norris, on June 17. Spokesperson Stevie Mathieu said the agency plans to begin its own controlled burns next spring.
It could also make prescribed burning for everyone in Washington easier with a less restrictive smoke management plan. The public comment period for proposed revisions ended Tuesday and Mathieu said the new plan should be in place within one to two years.