The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite on the Suomi NPP satellite acquired this image on August 15, 2018. Forest fire smoke is shown hovering over much of western North America and central Canada. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

By the end of August wildfires had consumed nearly 7 million acres of trees in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Although there were no major fires on the Key Peninsula, the KP experienced the effects of poor air quality for the third year in a row with smoke from fires in Oregon and eastern Washington and then, as winds shifted, from British Columbia. 

“We have not had true forest fires on the Key Peninsula, but we have had fires in the forest,” KPFD Fire Chief Guy Allen said. Those fires have tended to be in the low brush, burning what he referred to as low-level fuels. He said that in big wildfires, flames at high temperatures reach tall treetops and can spread quickly. The water surrounding the KP provides relatively high humidity and winds tend to be quiet in the summer—factors offering protection to this area. 

Allen said fires on the KP are generally less than an acre in size. Last summer a fire consumed about 10 acres––caused by a landowner who was burning trash illegally, thought the fire was out, and left it unattended. The fire was reported the following day when a Washington Department of Natural Resources helicopter saw it while en route to another fire. It took a few days to extinguish, Allen said

According to the National Parks Service, people often unintentionally cause about 90 percent of forest fires. “Fire departments have a running joke. Question: What are the three most common causes of fires? Answer: Men, women and children,” Allen said.

A DNR program called Firewise is geared to help homeowners living in the forest-urban interface—areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildfire. According to the DNR website, as many as 80 percent of homes lost to wildfire might have been saved if brush around the homes had been cleared with defensible space created around structures. The KP Fire Dept. is not part of the Firewise program, but staff will evaluate homes on a case-by-case basis. 

Wildfires have grown in size, intensity and number over the past 20 years. According to NOAA, fires consumed an average of 4.3 million acres a year between 1995 and 2003. Between 2000 and 2010 the average grew to 6.6 million acres. A record of 10.1 million acres burned in 2105, and this year by the end of August, 6.9 million acres were in flames. 

The causes for the increase are complex, but most agree that they are a combination of forestry practices and climate change. Dr. Paul Hessburg, an ecologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station’s Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Wenatchee, said that historically in dry areas trees grew fairly far apart, fires were frequent and when they occurred, they weren’t that severe. In moist cold forests, trees grew more densely and fires were less frequent, but were more severe when they occurred. 

 “These different forest types, the environments that they grew in and fire severity—they all worked together to shape a forest patchwork,” Hessburg said. “The patchwork provided a natural mechanism to resist the spread of future fires across the landscape. Once a patch of forest burned, it helped to prevent the flow of fire across the landscape.” 

For 10,000 years, Native Americans intentionally burned during the wet seasons in order to thin some forests to grow food and to increase grazing areas for deer and bison. When Europeans arrived in the late 1800s, grazing livestock “ate the grasses which had been the conveyor belt for the historical fires, and this prevented once-frequent fires from thinning out trees and burning up dead wood. Later came roads and railroads, and they acted as potent firebreaks, interrupting further the flow of fire across this landscape,” Hessburg said.

In 1910, a major fire, called the “Big Burn,” stretching from eastern Washington to western Montana, burned 3 million acres in a few days and killed 87 people. Fire prevention became job one for the nascent forest service, and over the years they did just that, containing 95 percent of all fires.

Timber harvesting, which got going in the west after World War II, removed the large and the old trees. These were survivors of centuries of wildfires. The forest filled with thin-barked, fire-sensitive small trees so close together they were touching each other. Hessburg refers to this as an “epidemic of trees.” He said, “And after a century without fire, dead branches and downed trees on the forest floor, they’re at powder-keg levels.”

Climate change, with wetter springs, drier summers and higher winds, has compounded the problem. The Washington Forest Protection Association reported that in 2017 they spent a record 40 days at the highest level of preparedness, almost three weeks more than during the severe 2015 fire season. 

Hessburg and others, including the U.S. Forest Service, recommend a number of approaches to decrease wildfire risk. Prescribed burning can intentionally thin out trees and burn up dead fuels, and can be timed to minimize the risk of fires spreading. Mechanical thinning can decrease fuels and capture commercial value—using thinned trees for lumber or pulp. It is also possible to manage wildfires; rather than being extinguished, some can be put back to work, thinning forests and reducing dead fuels.

The Wildland Fires Act of 2017, sponsored by a bipartisan group of western senators, has been introduced in the U.S. Senate, and addresses some of these issues. At a more local level, the DNR recently awarded its first Good Neighbor Authority restoration timber harvest sale, a project using mechanical thinning to reduce timber overgrowth on 604 acres of forest in the Colville National Forest. The sale of that timber will generate about $1.5 million, and revenue generated by the timber sale will be used to fund further restoration projects within the Colville National Forest.

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