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WA lands commissioner reflects on 2021 wildfire season

Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center

The wildfire season in the Inland Northwest is winding down. It was a season that began early and continued with intensity during the heat of July and August. More than a dozen big fires were regularly burning throughout the three states. The Methow and Yakima valleys experienced weeks of smoky air.

We asked Washington Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz to compare the 2021 fire season with the 2020 version, which hit its peak during early September.Hilary Franz: “Both years started the same. It was largely in the middle and the end that was different. Last year we started to get some cooler temperatures in that July period, then, all of a sudden, we started to go, you know, it may not be as bad as we thought. We knew it was still going to be bad, but it may not be as horrific as we thought it would be. It was that Labor Day firestorm where we had those hurricane-force winds. Everybody’s out on the landscape. We had 56 fires that first day and we had 24 the next, where 620,000 acres burned in 72 hours. This year, what we had was  not one significant, catastrophic weekend. Instead we had one week after another week after another week of catastrophic fires. It started July 1 and it hung all the way through until mid-September, where things started to finally change for us. We were fighting on the landscape anywhere between 11 and 17 significant fires every single day since July 1 to Labor Day. Many of those fires hung on for quite some time, for weeks, as you can see with the 25 Mile fire, the Schneider fire, the Cub Creek fires, Cedar Creek fires. The drought this year was huge, where a majority of the state was in drought-like conditions. The moisture content of our landscape was around 2%, whereas paper is around 5% moisture content. So our landscape was burning faster than paper and we all know how fast paper can burn. And we didn’t get much let up. We didn’t get much moisture on it. It helped that we didn’t have the kind of hurricane-force winds than we did on Labor Day. If we did, it would have been far more tragic.”

Franz says her agency learned from last year that it needed to attack fires quicker and from the air, if possible. But with stiff competition from other states for air tankers that drop liquid on fires, she said the Department of Natural Resources had to figure out how to source its own aircraft.

Hilary Franz: “I was tired of being in the midst of these catastrophic fires and not being to able to get any resources from the feds or other states because they’re already deployed in other states. So I took the step of saying we’re going to be dependent on ourselves and we went from around 12 to 15 aircraft to around 35 aircraft by July. Those 35 air resources, they were under our exclusive control. They were ours to use. They were absolutely critical in making sure that this fire season was not more horrific than 2018 and 2020 and even 2015, when a million acres burned. There were 1,750 fires. You’ve heard maybe 20 to 25 of those fires. The rest you never heard of because we used initial attack and put them out before they could get big. They were also instrumental in being able to get containment on those other, more significant major fires that we saw this year.”

Franz says attacking fires early was important in keeping most of them from growing into mega fires. But does that strategy contradict the new conventional wisdom that fires should be left to burn wherever possible to clear out dead and dying trees?

Hilary Franz: “I absolutely agree that we need to bring fire back into the landscape, but we have to bring it back at at the right time and the right place and here’s what that means. It means that we should not be bringing fire back into a landscape that is dead, dying, diseased and has thousands of acres that are literally kindling on our landscape. If we do, we will have the kind of catastrophic fires that we’ve seen last year and this year. Fire is right when those forests are restored and they can be resilient to fire. Fire is natural in our landscape. What isn’t natural is how dead and diseased and sick our forests are. In addition, we should not be bringing back fire in the context of drought-like conditions, where our landscape is bone dry. What I’m urging is that our Forest Service recognize that we have, first and foremost, number one priority is to restore the health of these forests as fast as we can. We are in a race against climate change. We are in a race against wildfire and we’ve got to move at the pace and scale of wildfire. Restore those forests as fast as we can and then, when fires start, whether they’re naturally started or human-caused, they will be able to put themselves out or with limited resources, they will be able to be contained.”

Franz says she was in the nation’s capital last week, urging Congress to include more resources for fighting and preventing fires in its infrastructure package.

This year in Olympia, the legislature voted to allocate millions of dollars over the next several years for the same priorities.

Next year in Olympia, she says she’ll turn her attention to non-fire-related issues.

Hilary Franz: “A number of pieces. One is recreation. We are seeing an increasing number of people on our recreation lands. We have seen significant underfunding of operations and maintenance and management funds that help keep those lands beautiful and healthy. In addition to that, we’re seeing challenges and we need more law enforcement. I have literally 12 law enforcement officers to manage six million acres of land and it’s about 240,000+ acres a person. That’s next to impossible. I’ll be coming back with a new push on developing a strategy for protecting and conserving one million acres of forest land, to keep the Evergreen State ever green and reforesting over one million acres over the next 20 years.”

Franz says she’ll continue to add to the state’s aerial firefighting arsenal, using the money the legislature allocated this year.

Hilary Franz: “We’ll bring on two new aircraft, just within our own fleet. We’ll have hired 100 new firefighters and we’ll also be moving more resources down to our local fire districts, who continue, in partnership with our firefighters to be the heroes on the ground. We will have some efforts around salmon recovery and increasing the investments to protect our waterways and ensure that our iconic species, our salmon continue to survive and thrive, just like our forests.”