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EPA signs off on Washington smoke plan, clearing way for more prescribed burns

A prescribed burn in Chelan County this spring.
Washington State Department of Natural Resources
A prescribed burn in Chelan County this spring.

The Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on an updated smoke management plan in Washington – which will make it easier for Washington state agencies to do prescribed burns.

Prescribed burns help reduce fuel and build up on the forest floor, making a catastrophic wildfire less likely.

Washington Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Will Rubin said the rule change will allow fire managers to make the call on whether to burn on the day of the fire. Manpower and equipment could be pre-staged, but weather conditions could pre-empt starting a fire:

“You would marshal everybody, have the hose lines laid out, do the final walk-throughs and you'd think you were good to go, but you wouldn't know until the morning,” he said, “Sometimes that complicates the larger burns, the ones you need more people or resources there, because you're taking a chance, and sometimes that chance doesn't pan out”

Andrew Wineke, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Ecology, said the plan will help the state reduce smoke impacts to nearby communities, by carefully planning that the fires are only lit when weather conditions are favorable: “What you want is the smoke to go up in the air and dissipate,” he said. “You don't want it lingering in a valley and building up, or blowing downwind so it's affecting nearby people. And obviously you want it conducted in a safe way so it can't spread.”

The new plan will fine tune the process of how a fire can be authorized, including allowing the final call on when the fire should proceed to be made the day of the fire. If conditions change during an active fire, managers can act to slow down a burn if it looks like smoke will blow toward a populated area.

State officials hope the use of controlled fire could prevent mega fires that blanket the state in smoke. So far this year over 500 acres have been burned to reduce both fire and smoke danger.