Experts say more controlled burns will reduce haze long-term

After a smoky, fire-filled summer in Western Washington that drew comparisons to post-apocalyptic landscapes from the movies, local experts are now pointing to more fires - in a planned, controlled way - as a solution.

“It’s the kind of investment that will pay off in healthier ecosystems and less wildfire smoke,” fire ecologist and UW professor emeritus Jim Agee said.

Agee has lived in the area for 40 years and said he has never seen such an extended period of time where there was so much smoke and haze west of the Cascades.

He said prescribed burns are key in getting rid of the undergrowth and dead trees that fuel a catastrophic wildfire.

“We're not going to get rid of smoke altogether,” he said, “but what we'll do is - we'll stretch it out and create much less smoke in the long run. Prescribed fires, for example, typically create a lot less smoke than wildfires.”

Agee said he would like to see the state channel more money in planned fires, something Hilary Franz, commissioner of lands for the Department of Natural Resources, said they are doing right now.

“The goal is to bring prescribed burns back in during the fall, where it starts to get colder where we have more rain and moisture,” Franz said, adding that training for more people to run prescribed fires is already underway.

She said the state has identified 2.7 million acres of forest dying due to disease, drought and insect infestation. Over the next 20 years, it plans to treat 1.25 million acres through various methods, including thinning and prescribed burns.

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Franz said the Department of Natural Resources has $13 million from the state to help pay for the work in the immediate future, with plans to ask for more from lawmakers in the upcoming session. That money includes a grant program to help private landowners pay for controlled burns, especially in areas that see fires year after year.

“We can not only ensure that they're going to have summers returned to them with clean air, without the smoke and haze, but they will also then not have to suffer the risk and concerns they have for their own safety and their homes,” she said.

Another solution that has been discussed is letting some wildfires, once they start, simply burn. Franz said that with the droughts in our region, that can be a dangerous task, because the state does not want to risk fires getting out of control.

That method works best, Agee said, on isolated federal park lands away from towns and roads.