SEATTLE — On Tuesday, the Legislature approved $10 million in the capital budget for forest hazard reduction by the state Department of Natural Resources, the largest single increase in funding for forest health ever made by the state, but just half of what was originally requested.
Already this year there have been 324 wildfires across Washington. Last year’s fire season was the biggest on record in the state, with the largest fire — the Carlton Complex — destroying more than 250,000 acres. More than 1 million acres of Washington’s landscape has been consumed by wildfire since 2009.
“As we approach an unprecedented wildfire season due to changing climate and decades of fire suppression, these investments are more critical than ever,” said Mike Stevens, The Nature Conservancy’s Washington state director. “While this represents the single largest legislative appropriation for forest health, there is much more that we need to do to ensure resilient communities and forests in face of increasing amounts of fire.”
“The health of our forests is important to wildfire prevention. Dead or dying trees are fuel for potentially catastrophic wildfire,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, who leads DNR. “We appreciate the Legislature’s investment in this critical effort to improve forest health and the resilience of Washington forests.”
Fire and forest health experts believe some of the uptick in the number of fires earlier in the season is due to years of persistent drought on the east side of the Cascades, which have weakened forests and made them more susceptible to insects and disease. Ailing forests become flammable “tinder bombs,” ready to ignite from a human-caused spark or lightning strike.
The appropriation includes $9 million for forest hazard reduction work on state and in certain circumstances, private non-industrial timber lands, to reduce the risk of fire, insect and disease to state lands, and $1 million for grants to local communities for the Firewise program, which helps communities take action to increase public safety, and reduce wildfire risk and losses.
DNR and a coalition of advocates developed the original $20 million capital budget request based on an October 2014 report to the state legislature titled “Eastern Washington Forest Health: Hazards, Accomplishments and Restoration Strategy.”
Up-front investments in in forest treatment can save millions in lost asset value for state forests and firefighting costs, protect homes and other property, and generate immediate economic benefits. Recent studies indicate that $1 invested in restoration can yield $1.60 in wildfire suppression cost reductions, and that $1 invested in restoration also generates $6 in overall economic benefit.
The following links offer additional information on the importance of forest health and its relationship to wildfire:
The Nature Conservancy