By Don C. Brunell
At last count, firefighters were battling 82 major wildfires in 10 western states. The fires have already scorched 2,300 square miles of forests and range lands, dislocated thousands of people, and burned hundreds of homes and buildings.
This has been the third worst forest fire season on record, prompting western congressional members to add billions to emergency hurricane relief legislation
It isn’t over yet.
The cost of fighting fires already broke this year’s U.S. Forest Service budget. It is part of a disturbing trend where combating these infernos jumped from 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015.
For example, the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge closed Interstate 84, delayed truck, rail and barge shipments, and added to the thick layer of choking smoke and soot blanketing our region. Southwest Washington’s air quality reached its highest hazard level in history, prompting school closures.
In California, forest fires closed Highway 41, a popular route to Yosemite National Park. Richard Garner, who owns a bicycle shop in tiny Oakhurst, calculated the closure and heavy smoke caused a 75 percent drop in his rental business.
Mammoth forest fires have been around for centuries. In a single week in September 1902, the Yacolt Burn engulfed more than a half-million acres and killed 56 people in the Columbia River Gorge and around Mount St. Helens. The smoke was so thick that ships on the Columbia River were forced to navigate by compass and the street lights in Seattle, 160 miles to the north, glowed at noon.
Forest fires are part of nature, but they are getting more dangerous and expensive to fight. As fires increase in size and intensity, suppression, environmental restoration and mitigation costs soar.
That is a growing problem as our nation is being swallowed up by a skyrocketing national debt. It will soon will top $20 trillion meaning each American would have to pony up $61,000 if our creditors called for immediate repayment.
The point is special funding requests for natural disasters will become more difficult to obtain. So, it is time to revisit the way we are managing our forests.
John Bailey, a professor of forest management at Oregon State University, told the Associated Press, that megafires, those consuming 156 square miles, are increasing. He believes “part of the solution is thinning forests through logging, prescribed burns and allowing naturally occurring fires to be managed instead of extinguished.”
Cutting diseased, dead and fire damaged trees is not new. In intermountain forests (eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia), loggers once salvaged beetle-killed trees and sent them to rural sawmills to be cut into 2x4s. That practice was severely curtailed 30 years ago.
Knowing that mature trees are most susceptible to insects and disease, public forest managers once designed timber sales on small tracts as fire breaks. The logging and subsequent clean-up removed forest fuels which, in recent years, have been allowed to accumulate.
Harvesting helped fund replanting and fire access road construction. Environmental mitigation techniques have dramatically improved resulting in clean water and unencumbered access for fish returning to natural spawning grounds.
As we look forward to more austere times, we must revise management practices in state and federal forests. We can no longer allow nature to just take its course. There needs to be a more balanced approach which reduces the risk of wildfire.
Megafires are polluting our air, endangering our health and safety, and burning a bigger hole in our pocketbooks. By thinning, salvaging and logging, we could not only save expenses, but create jobs and bring in needed revenue to government.
Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.