Faced With Fire and Smoke: What to Do?

Across the Pacific Northwest, we are experiencing longer, and more intense fire seasons driven by increasingly warmer and drier conditions in our forests. As temperatures increase, our forests are becoming more vulnerable to high-intensity fires.

But fire can be essential. As an ecological and cultural process, fire has shaped the diversity of life on this planet for millennia. Our strategy seeks to restore balance to the system by reframing the issue: we must learn to live safely with fire — embrace and manage it as a natural and necessary process.

 
 

Trees Tell Us Much About Fire

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For the last century, the United States has maintained a policy of excluding fires from forests, quickly suppressing fires to prevent them from spreading. Though this minimized the damage from wildfires on our communities, the policy created conditions for even more severe wildfires, some of which we are witnessing today.

Check out this web story describing the history of wildfire in the United States, how trees have been affected and what the future of fire management and forest health look like. Find out what we are doing to restore forests now and reduce the risk of devastating wildfires in the future.


Fighting Fire With Fire

You know the saying, “Fight fire with fire.” In our Eastern Washington dry forests, this is exactly the approach we are taking to reduce the risks of future large wildfires.

Controlled burns are used to help set the forest back into a rhythm where smaller, low-intensity, lower-smoke fires burn through periodically. These lower-intensity fires create healthy forests as well as create conditions where fire crews can more safely and effectively manage wildfire reducing risks to communities. 

 
 

We’ve identified several challenges to implementing prescribed fire in Washington, including a lack of capacity, expertise, and training in prescribed fire. These are the very things our prescribed fire training exchanges (TREX) are working toward addressing.

The above photo of a forest in the Sinlahekin Wildlife Area shows the benefits of prescribed burns. On the left is a part of the forest that was thinned and sustained significant damage from the Lime Belt Fire in 2015. The right side of the photo shows an adjacent area that had tree thinning and prescribed burns completed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2014, which minimized fire behavior and damage from the Lime Belt Fire. © Jason Haug

TREX team members put fire to work for a variety of purposes — from helping a community prepare for future wildfires to creating more defensible space, from restoring habitat to improving forestry. While fire training is the bottom-line objective of TREX, coming away with deeper understanding of the social, political, ecological and economic aspects of prescribed fire are also important outcomes.

These forest-health practices support jobs and rural economic vitality by employing loggers, foresters and prescribed-fire professionals to work on the ground restoring the landscape toward a more wildfire-resilient state and is one aspect of creating safer and more resilient communities living in fire environments 

 
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Fast Facts

70+ fire professionals trained in Washington

100+ TREX trainings across the U.S. since ’08


Community Safety

Towns across Washington and the West are beginning to tackle the reality of living in fire-adapted landscapes. Efforts such as Fire Adapted Communities enable communities to take steps together to prepare. A fire adapted community is a community that is working to prepare for, respond to, and recover from wildfire. It incorporates people, buildings, businesses, infrastructure, cultural resources and natural areas into the preparedness effort.

Your Health

Public health has become a growing concern as smoke, which is lingering for longer periods, impairs air quality. This map shows active fires and current air-quality conditions across Washington. For what each level of air quality means and what you should do as precautionary measures, consult this graphic from the state Department of Health.

Inhaling wildfire smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. Explore more resources from the state Department of Health for everyone as well as specific information for people who are especially sensitive to smoke.


Our Science

The Missing Fire

A new study shows an important part of the solution may actually be more fire — of the right type. We need much greater use of prescribed fire for controlled fires as well as managed wildfire to restore balance to Washington’s dry forests and keep communities safer.

Minority Fire Risk

Communities that are mostly black, Hispanic or Native American experience 50 percent greater vulnerability to wildfires compared with other communities. It is important to take socioeconomic factors into account when helping communities prepare for wildfires.


Risk From Invasives

Now, with dense cheatgrass monoculture blanketing the west, fire has a readily available fuel load that is easy to spread across – cheatgrass doubles the likelihood of a fire catching on and fire frequencies increase tenfold after an area is invaded by cheatgrass.

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