Lawmakers plan to lower wildfire impact, expenditures

By:  Glenn Farley
Source: King 5 News

A century of fire suppression has its side effects in the forest: The buildup of fuel. Bushes, small trees, dead branches, deep layers of grass and dried needles. 

Fire experts say that kind of material used to burn off naturally in low intensity fires that left trees standing to live hundreds of years.  In recent decades, the picture has grown clearer that with all that fuel on the forest floor, today's fires become so intense, trees are being killed.

In Washington state, and around much of the west, 2014 and 2015 saw back-to-back record fire seasons. For Washington, they were the worst years since the early 1900s, when there was little to stand in the way of the Yacolt Burn in Southwest Washington.

In a conference call Wednesday organized by the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Union of Concerned Scientists, there was growing worry that climate change could make our fire situation even worse, and the records will keep growing.

 “[We] don't know the exact effect of climate change until it arrives,” said Robert Scheller, an associate professor of environmental science at Portland State.

The suspicion is that already recorded warmer temperatures are extending fire seasons in Alaska and are likely to make forests east of the Cascade Range more vulnerable to drought and tree killing insects, like the Spruce Bud Worm.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is the ranking member of the committee. The Senate is currently discussing ways to limit expenditures for firefighting, which is now running into the billions, by removing buildup on the forest floor before big fires break out.

One method is to use more prescribed, or controlled low intensity burning, much like the natural cycle in centuries past.  Another is to grind up that forest floor debris and help defray the cost by turning it into what's called cross laminated lumber. That could generate jobs in rural areas.