TO CLOSE

GREEN MOUNTAIN – Anton Baur swings a whirring chainsaw close to the ground, chopping down and leaving in its wake young Douglas firs, lingonberry bushes, and occasionally a Scottish broom. In the dense undergrowth near Green Mountain, the state wildland firefighter is opening strips of land according to state authorities that will help prevent and limit wildfires.

For Baur, a North Mason High School graduate studying civil engineering at the University of Washington during the fire offseason, thinning out of Jungle Court NW has also served as a practice. He is in his fourth year of fighting wildfires and he must be prepared to do similar work to contain a fire.

“It helps you get used to using the saw for long, continuous periods of time,” Baur said.

It’s not possible to predict exactly how much work Baur and an army of firefighters will have this year in Washington state, but there are worrying trends regarding the upcoming fire season. The northern hemisphere recorded its hottest summer on record in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to accompany the driest March and April in the past 100 years.

It’s obvious at Green Mountain. Brian Williams, a state silviculturist with the Department of Natural Resources, uses his caulking boots to dig into the ground between the trees to demonstrate.

“Tell me when you see humidity,” Williams said.

Two inches lower, the dirt gave way to a more humid brown color. This may be typical in late July or August, but not early June.

“It’s very dry,” said Williams.

“A tactical advantage”

Wildfires, which typically burned nearly 200,000 acres a year in Washington in the early 2000s, have grown to nearly half a million acres each year for the past five years. And 2020 took that number even higher, eclipsing 800,000 acres. The cost of fighting these fires in Washington alone is about $ 150 million per year, not to mention the loss of life that can accompany a rapid fire.

At Green Mountain, the Department of Natural Resources plays a defensive role before the fire season begins. He sent Baur and other firefighters on Thursday to the 4-acre property registered about a decade ago. As Baur cut, others transported the remains to areas about 100 feet from the road, establishing a buffer zone.

“It gives us a tactical advantage,” said Matt Caldwell, fire unit manager at the Department of Natural Resources.

After: 3 things you can do right now to prepare for a forest fire

Prescribed fires and thinning are part of MNR Commissioner Hilary Franz’s plan to improve forest health. About an additional $ 37 million will be spent on such work over the next two years, thanks to the Legislature’s approval of a more aggressive plan to tackle wildfires. Fire response also received a boost of $ 71 million over the next two years, as did home protection programs, to $ 20 million.

About 100 additional firefighters will be permanently added to the MRN, but these positions will not be filled until 2022.

The “Kitsap-Shelton” area, as it is called within MNR, is a higher priority in the plan because almost half of all land is private, and the forests here tend to be aged. medium, vulnerable to drought and may benefit from active management, according to Jen Watkins, deputy director of MNR’s forest health and resilience division.

Clear up “overpopulated” forests

The 2020 wildfire season was the most brutal in years, burning a New Jersey-sized hole in the western United States, killing at least 34 people and smothering the West Coast in smoke. Western Washington, which typically doesn’t burn as easily as the eastern half of the state, has appeared particularly vulnerable to fires that spread on Labor Day and after.

Thinning “increases the resilience” of the forest, said Ken Bevis, a forest stewardship biologist with MNR, and reduces “overcrowded” stands of trees and brush that feed the fire. Thinned areas also survive better in the face of insect infestations and drought.

“Less dense stands tend not to burn as intensely,” he said.

Bevis works with private landowners to help them manage and create resilient forests that are not on Crown land. This is accompanied by tax relief, he emphasizes. And the legislature’s passage of MNR funding means more work can be done.

In mid-May, MNR teamed up with the Mason County Emergency Management Department for a “grind day.” Local residents could bring trees and brush from their properties for free disposal, a measure to reduce the risk of fire.

When they can’t prevent the fires, crews resort to a three-step strategy, Caldwell said: build a “box” around the fire, let everything inside burn while keeping that perimeter. , then mop up after the fuels have been used up.

Suppression of fires at all costs has been the policy of most agencies for most of the 20th century. The Big Burn of 1910, a fire that burned 3 million acres and killed 87 people, served as the impetus for this strategy. But it may have helped the undergrowth thrive in the forests, leaving additional fuel that makes forest fires more intense today.

After: Bill aims to fight forest fires before ‘evergreen state turns charcoal black’

The extent of fire and smoke damage in the Pacific Northwest is still a guessing game. But the risk is there again.

“Fires are going to happen,” Caldwell said. “How much are they getting? I’ll tell you in October.”

Josh Farley is an Army reporter for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, [email protected] or on Twitter at @joshfarley.

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