Cantwell promises push for more fuel treatment

By:  K.C. Mehaffey
Source: The Wenatchee World

A century of putting out every wildfire across the western United States didn’t help.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists joined Sen. Maria Cantwell in a press conference Thursday to say that climate change is also a major contributor to conditions that have left our forests ripe for megafires.

We’re seeing a trend toward hotter, drier weather, earlier snow melt and prolonged conditions that are together contributing to these larger, more intense fires,” said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Cleetus said that in the West, the wildfire season has gone from five months in the 1970s to over seven months today. The number of wildfires that are larger than 1,000 acres has more than doubled. While the scientists are not endorsing or opposing any specific legislation, she said, they are urging Congress to act now, and applauding Cantwell’s efforts to do something.

Cantwell said she hopes to pass a bill this year that would require and fund much more thinning and burning on national forests across the west. And, she hopes, part of the solution will include using some of the trees for cross-laminated timber, a product which can be used to build large buildings and is already mandated for use in construction of three schools. Several mills are very interested in it as a new market opportunity, she said.

Cantwell said that preventing carbon emission released by wildfires is part of the equation. She said that thinning and burning forests instead of allowing them to burn would save up to 32 million tons of carbon. “That’s the equivalent of 55 million vehicles off the road,” she said.

She also said that she’s looking into tying the thinning projects to long-term contracts with mills. “We’ve seen a lot of mills shut down throughout the Northwest,” so 15 or 20-year contracts may be needed to successfully work collaboratively with the timber industry.

Cantwell said scientists have predicted that more than half of the nation’s forests — 67 million of 121 million acres — are threatened due to warming conditions. In Washington state, almost two million acres are considered at very high risk of burning, she said.

She mentioned the devastating impacts of the Carlton Complex Fire, and fires that hit Wenatchee and Chelan last summer, as well as the $2 billion in timber revenue that the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation lost from just one wildfire.

If scientists are right, she said, this is just the beginning.

That leads us to the conclusion that we need to do something,” Cantwell said. “If we want to have our forests, we’re going to have to take more decisive action.”

Cantwell said there are already some successful efforts to increase forest thinning and burning, including projects now underway through the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative and others.

The climate change tie is based partly on wildfire activity in Alaska — where wildfires have not been suppressed for the last 100 years as they have in the rest of the west, said Randi Jandt, fire ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

The boreal forests are particularly good labs on forest changes versus human changes, because of the relative lack of human disturbance and human suppression compared to the west,” she said. There, warming is occurring at about double the pace of warming in the continental northwest, she said.

Last year, wildfires consumed roughly 5.1 million acres of the 8.8 million acres that burned in the United States, she said, adding, “Warming is felt to be the driving force. “

Robert Scheller, associate professor of environmental science at Portland State University, said so far, Washington and Oregon have been relatively lucky compared with neighbors like California and British Columbia. But, he added, “We can expect that climate change, over the coming decades, is going to radically change forests in the Pacific Northwest.”

He said just like wildfire was kept off the landscape, research suggests that the drier eastside forests of Washington and Oregon can be managed for climate change through large-scale fuel treatments such as thinning and prescribed burning.

We need resources to prepare for climate change,” he said. “It’s coming. It’s happening now, and it’s going to really ramp up in the coming decades.”