Washington lawmakers introduce bill to allow more prescribed fires

The bill would relax some air quality and permitting regulations so as not to impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires.

Above: a firefighter watches the progress of the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest near Hill City, South Dakota, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Lawmakers have introduced a bill in the Washington legislature that would allow more prescribed fires in the central and eastern parts of the state. House Bill 2928 could reduce the number of projects that are disapproved due to air quality regulations.

The goal is to encourage forest managers to reduce the amount of fuel that would be available during a wildfire, or as the bill states, “ensure that restrictions on outdoor burning for air quality reasons do not impede measures necessary to ensure forest resiliency to catastrophic fires”.

If a prescribed fire were to be disapproved due to air quality concerns, the officials would first have to take into account “the likelihood and magnitude of subsequent air pollution from an unplanned and uncontrolled fire if the burn permit is refused, revoked, or postponed”.

In addition, burn permits would be issued that span multiple days for forest resiliency burning. A burn permit spanning multiple days would only be revoked or postponed midway during the duration of the permit when necessary for the safety of adjacent property or upon a determination that the burn has significantly contributed to a violation of air quality standards.

On February 16, the bill passed the House on a unanimous vote.

On February 29 at 12:30 p.m. a hearing on the bill is scheduled in the Senate Committee on Ways & Means.

One of the best fire pictures of 2015

The report that the U.S. Forest Service wrote about last year’s fires in the Washington and Oregon reminded me of one of the best pictures of the fires in 2015 — the one you see above. The photo is at the beginning of the “Interactive Story Journal” which provides summary information from the main report.

We first used the photo on September 6, 2015 in an article with several other images by the photographer, Kari Greer. It was taken on the First Creek Fire on the west side of Lake Chelan in Washington and as you can see it shows a rising moon as the fire backs down the slopes.

We contacted Ms. Greer who told us it was taken above the Hale place in 25 Mile Creek on August 27 as the moon was coming up. The camera was on a tripod at about 9 p.m. with a 50mm focal length at 1/80 second.

HERE is a link to a larger version of Ms. Greer’s photo.

Review of the 2015 wildfire season in the Northwest

Photo above: Firefighters observe the Cougar Creek Fire southeast of Mt. Adams in southern Washington in 2015. From InciWeb.

The U.S. Forest Service has produced an exhaustive summary and review of the 2015 wildfire season in what they call their Pacific Northwest Region — what the interagency community calls the Northwest Geographic Area — Oregon and Washington.

The report is huge, 281 pages. In addition to general information about the fire activity, it includes sections about weather, air quality, technology, and summaries of 28 fires with 14 of those being covered in greater detail than the others.

The main 281-page report can be be found here (it’s a LARGE file). There is another version they call an “Interactive Story Journal” which provides summary information from the main report as well as interactive web maps, videos, and numerous photos as well as “time-enabled fire progression maps” for selected fires.

Below are some excerpts from the report:

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Most Severe Fire Season in Modern History

The 2015 fire season in the Pacific Northwest was the most severe in modern history from a variety of standpoints. Oregon and Washington experienced more than 3,800 wildfires (almost 2,300 in Oregon and more than 1,500 in Washington) that burned more than 1,600,000 acres (more than 630,000 acres in Oregon and more than 1,000,000 acres in Washington)—including 1,325 fires representing 507,000 acres on U.S. Forest Service lands (information as of September 30, 2015).

Initial Attack was successful in rapidly containing all but about 119 of these fires. This response represents an almost 97 percent Initial Attack success rate. Approximately 50 of these fire escapes occurred during a ten-day period in mid-August when numerous Large Fires (a wildfire of 100 acres or more in timber or 300 acres or more in grass/sage) were already burning in the Pacific Northwest. During this time, the Northern Rockies and Northern California were also experiencing unusually high numbers of wildfires. This situation limited the ability to rapidly obtain Initial Attack reinforcements as well as almost all types of firefighting resources needed for Large Fires.

Chelan complex Washington 2015
Firefighters conduct a firing operation to protect homes on the Chelan Complex in Washington, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.

Tragedy Strikes

Tragedy struck on August 19 when three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed while attacking a fire on private land near Twisp, Washington.

During this severe fire season, approximately 675 structures were lost. While well over 16,000 structures were threatened, most were saved from loss by aggressive suppression actions.

2015 Fire Season Milestones

  • In August, to help support Washington State’s fires, the Emergency Support Function 4 (ESF4) was activated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • The Emergency Conflagration Act—that authorizes the Oregon Office of the State Fire Marshal to mobilize structural firefighters and equipment to assist local resources battling fires—was invoked by the Governor of Oregon on July 30 in response to the Stouts Creek Fire, on August 13 for the Cornet Fire and Windy Ridge Fires, on August 14 for the Canyon Creek Fire, and on August 20 for the Grizzly Bear Complex.
  • The Washington State Fire Service Mobilization Plan is implemented to provide personnel, equipment, and other logistical resources from around the state when a wildland fire or other emergency exceeds the capacity of local jurisdictions. In mid-August, the Chief of the Washington State Patrol authorized such a state-declared mobilization on the Carpenter Road Fire, the Kettle Complex, and the Okanogan Complex.
  • The Pacific Northwest Region had the highest priority in the nation for firefighting resources during these dates: July 25 and 26, August 14-31, and September 8-13.
  • The Pacific Northwest Region was under a Preparedness Level 5 (the highest, most severe level) from August 13 through September 4.
  • The greatest number of uncontained fires occurred on August 18: 25 Large Fires totaling 822,512 acres in the Pacific Northwest Region (105 Large Fires totaling 2.2 million acres nationally).

Weather

The first six months of 2015 were the warmest first six months of any year over much of Oregon and Washington since record keeping began in 1895.

These record-warm temperatures observed during the winter and spring, coupled with below-average precipitation, led to an exceptionally poor snowpack throughout the winter and spring.

From June 1 through September 15, a total of 51,019 lightning strikes were recorded over Oregon and Washington. The average for fire seasons from 2000-2014 through September 15 is 78,775 strikes. While the number of the 2015 strikes was below this average, the background of drought in 2015 enhanced the ability for lightning strikes to ignite multiple fires in short periods of time.

Continue reading “Review of the 2015 wildfire season in the Northwest”

Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.

Legislation introduced to acquire system to track location of state firefighters in Washington

Photo above: 19 white hearses brought the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona, July 7, 2013. They were killed after being overrun by the Yarnell Hill Fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill introduced in the Washington state legislature would provide for state employed firefighters a system that would track their location. Knowing where firefighters are while working on a rapidly spreading fire is crucial to ensuring their safety, and is half of what we have called Holy Grail of Firefighter Safety. The other half is knowing the real time location of the fire relative to the personnel. If a Division Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, or Safety Officer is monitoring this information they could potentially warn firefighters that their present position is in danger when the fire begins to spread in their direction. A system like this might have saved 24 lives on the 2013 Yarnell Hill and 2006 Esperanza Fires. In both cases the firefighters and their supervisors did not have a clear understanding of where the fire and the firefighters were.

In a January 18 article about how to reduce the number of fatalities on wildland fires, we wrote:

When you think about it, it’s crazy that we sometimes send firefighters into a dangerous environment without knowing these two very basic things.

Below is a section from House Bill 2924 as introduced in the Washington State Legislature on January 27, 2016, sponsored by six lawmakers:

…Require all fire suppression equipment and personnel in its employ or direction to be outfitted with an electronic monitoring device that utilizes global positioning system technology to protect the safety of wildland firefighters…

The Seattle Times wrote about the proposed legislation. Here is an excerpt:

…DNR has done some early research on GPS, according to Bob Johnson, the agency’s wildfire-division manager. Setting up a system could cost $1.5 million, Johnson told lawmakers.

“Improving safety for our firefighters is paramount and we’d view this technology … as a viable supplement to existing safety measures,” wrote Mary Verner, DNR’s deputy supervisor for resource protection. “Though, it, like many technologies, does have its limitations.”

Challenges, benefits

GPS locaters are used by various departments and agencies around the country, according to Triplett.

But there aren’t yet national standards for GPS systems, so when firefighters come from different agencies or another state to fight large blazes, they may not have equipment that works together, according to Triplett.

Steve Pollock, chief regional fire coordinator for the Texas A&M Fire Service, said it took about three years to develop that agency’s GPS system. When it goes live in July, it will be able to track more than 200 bulldozers, fire engines and coordinating vehicles, he said…

There needs to be leadership, nationally, to develop standards for firefighter tracking systems so that the devices used by different agencies are compatible and interoperable. This should be the duty of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, National Association of State Foresters, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Bureau of Land Management.

If individual state and local organizations spend millions on stand-alone systems that can’t be used outside their jurisdictions it will be FUBAR. Leadership is needed. Today.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands asks for increased wildfire funding

Chelan Fires
First Creek Fire, Okanogan-Wenatchee NF, Washington, 2015; burn operation in Morning Sun Estates. Photo by Kari Greer.

Washington state’s Commissioner of Public lands has written an opinion piece making his case for increased funding for managing wildfires in the state.

In the excerpt below Peter Goldmark had just referred to the fires near Lake Chelan:

…It was a grim preview of the toll wildfire would eventually take across our state in 2015: burning more than a million acres; destroying 307 homes; robbing tribal communities of timber revenue and hunting grounds; and killing three Washington firefighters who were protecting homes on a hillside of Ponderosa pines near the Twisp River. It would cost state taxpayers $164 million.

The destruction of 2015 surpassed that of 2014, when the Carlton complex fire scorched 256,000 acres, the worst wildfire ever in our state. That season cost Washington taxpayers $99 million.

After two horrific wildfire seasons in a row, we need to prepare for the danger wildfire presents to our people, communities, forests and grasslands. Some legislators in both parties and Gov. Jay Inslee have declared willingness to increase funding. Yet, as the January rains fall in Olympia, the urgency fades for other lawmakers.

That’s dangerous. The lessons from 2014 and 2015 must shape how we prepare for future fire seasons.

I’m asking the Legislature now for $24 million to prepare our state for this fire season and beyond. This is roughly twice what Gov. Inslee proposed in his budget.

We need more firefighters. We need them positioned in the most fire-prone areas of the state. We need to provide grants to local fire districts to boost their capabilities. We need to train volunteers, National Guard troops, and local firefighters alongside professional Department of Natural Resource firefighters. We need experienced fire commanders to lead them, using modern radio equipment. We need to thin and maintain our forests, and help homeowners and communities clear vegetation to protect themselves from fire…

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Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark heads the Washington state Department of Natural Resources.