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It’s the time of year again where the sight of smoke in the hills is most likely a positive sign.

Throughout the month of October, firefighters from across the state are participating in a series of prescribed burns in Upper County. According to a multiagency press release, the burns will increase the ability of fire professionals to mitigate the risk of unplanned summer fires that put nearby communities at risk of catastrophic impacts, as well as building fire management skills for local fire practitioners.

The release said that the burns are planned in several locations in the forestlands surrounding Cle Elum, Roslyn, and Ronald. The burn areas include planned burns within the lands managed by The Nature Conservancy and within the Roslyn Urban Forest.

“This year’s cross-ownership and collaborative burns showcase what’s possible when we work together to put more fire to use,” Washington Prescribed Fire Council Coordinator Kara Karboski said in the release. “Fire knows no boundaries, and the solutions to our wildfire management problems will require everyone from state agencies to private landowners to collaborate on proven solutions like prescribed fire.”

The burns are part of the Cascadia Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, otherwise known as TREX. The release explained that the program is designed to increase shared stewardship and learning across agencies and landowners.

“One of the biggest benefits of the TREX program is the various agencies and local community members building relationships for the future when wildfire does break out,” Kittitas County Commissioner Laura Osiadacz said in the release. “It’s great to work side by side with the state Department of Natural Resources and other agencies and take our learnings back to our fire department.”

The TREX program is not new to Upper County, with fuel reduction work taking place within the Roslyn Urban Forest over the past few years. The release added that TREX burns have been occurring in the area since 2017, with over 120 fire practitioners taking place in the events. The 2021 fall TREX season is hosted by the Washington Prescribed Fire Council and is funded by the Bureau of Land Management, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Additional support for the program comes from The Nature Conservancy, Fire Learning Network, the City of Roslyn, and fire departments throughout Kittitas County.

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

The TREX program was in full effect within the Roslyn Urban Forest Wednesday, as crews worked on a prescribed burn covering approximately six acres. Fire departments from around the county were in attendance, along with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

When preparing for prescribed burns, The Nature Conservancy Director of Forest Restoration and Fire Reese Lolley explained that many factors go into the decision of whether to proceed with the event.

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into planning for this day,” he said. “A prescribed burn prescription is based on aspects including wind, fuel moisture, and what we are trying to achieve by putting fire on the ground, both in the sense of community protection, forest health, rangeland, and the landowner objectives.”

Another factor Lolley said goes into the decision to move ahead with a burn include the ventilation of smoke produced by the burn so that it doesn’t adversely affect local communities. A comprehensive communication plan also needs to be in place to ensure local communities and first responders are informed about the burn. Once the approval to move ahead is received, the fire crews will start with a test burn on the uphill side of the prescribed burn site.

“You start with putting a little bit of fire with a drip torch down and then observing how the fuels are burning and how it’s behaving,” he said. “There’s some measurements taken and then you make a decision on whether you stop there and wait or move forward.”

LEGISLATION PROTECTING COMMUNITIES

Representative Kim Schrier was on hand to witness the burn, helping start the test burn process with a drip torch. Schrier said she believes that legislators on both sides of the aisle are alarmed by the exponential increase in wildfires throughout the Western United States.

“It’s risen to the top of everybody’s awareness,” she said. “When smoke hit the Capitol, it was sort of like the dustbowl, when it wasn’t until the dust hit the Capitol that members of Congress decided the issue was something they should actually deal with.”

Schrier said prescribed burns like the one she was on hand to witness are the most effective way to move forward in reducing wildfire risk in the region and said that there are various bills in stages of the legislative process to address the issue and provide resources for the expansion of prescribed burns throughout the Western United States. Along with Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson and Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader, Schrier introduced the House version of the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 in May. A Senate version of the same act has been co-sponsored by Sens. Maria Cantwell of Washington, Ron Wyden of Oregon, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Dianne Feinstein of California.

“It puts a special account of $300 million to pay for controlled burns wherever we need them,” Schrier said of the bill. “It has a minimum number of acres to achieve per year. There are various other bills that do similar things, but the idea is to put the money in upfront, because we spend a whole lot more after the fact in fighting the fires. It’s so much cheaper to go in and prevent and avoid those costs.”

Having dealt with wildfires throughout the county on a yearly basis, Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Rich Elliott said the legislation is a positive step in the right direction in the fight to protect communities within the county, although he said work needs to be done in addressing the liability issues related to conducting the burns.

“The idea that we begin to reintroduce prescribed fire into a lot of the active land management that needs to occur, which will ultimately make things healthier and more resilient is absolutely part of the equation,” he said. “All politics aside, Rep. Schrier’s been really good about listening to this problem and is doing some very effective things from my perspective.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!

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