More controlled burns likely in Washington in effort to curb wildfires

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- More fires could be coming to Washington.

But don't worry.

Unlike the more than 1,100 wildfires that have dotted the state so far this year, they will be purposeful and controlled, state officials said.

Late last week, Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, unveiled a bipartisan plan to give federal funding to preventing wildfires. The plan focuses on "science-driven approaches," her office said, that would include more controlled burning used to mitigate catastrophic fires.

"The concept is to do more fuel reduction," Cantwell said in a speech in Washington D.C.

Controlled burns are heavily monitored fire suppression techniques that burn forests and grasslands on purpose to reduce the fire season and uncontrolled burns.

"Prescribed fire is the planned, professional application of fire in the right place, at the right time," according to the Washington Prescribed Fire Council. 

Controlled burning can reduce underbrush, protect homes, and limit expansive wildfire planning.

Its an integral part of Washington's 20-year wildland fire protection strategic planning, said Hilary Franz, the state's commissioner of public lands.

Before the 20th century, fires were a natural part of a forest's life cycle. But decades of fire suppression and increasing fire seasons due to climate change have left the state's woodlands extremely vulnerable to fire.

Building "more resilient" woodlands - in part through prescribed burns - is a priority, Franz said.

"We want forests more resilient to the concept of hotter drier summers and getting out all the dead wood that is like kindling in the fire," Franz said.

The burns won't start right away, Franz said, mentioning it would be irresponsible to try a prescribed burn given the state's drought. And she realizes "more fires" can be a hard sell for residents in areas already weary from smoke.

Still, more fire on a smaller scale is not a bad thing, she argues.

"Fire has always been a natural part of our environment," Franz said.