GREEN MOUNTAIN — Anton Baur swings a whirring chainsaw close to the ground, chopping down and leaving young Douglas fir, huckleberry bushes and the occasional Scotch broom in his wake. In dense underbrush near Green Mountain, the state wildland firefighter is opening up swaths of land state officials say will help prevent and limit forest fires.
For Baur, a North Mason High School graduate studying civil engineering at the University of Washington during the fire offseason, the thinning off Jungle Court NW also served as practice. He’s coming up on his fourth year fighting wildland fires and he needs to be ready to do similar work to contain a fire.
“It helps get you conditioned to using the saw for long, continuous amounts 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 about the upcoming fire season. The Northern Hemisphere recorded its hottest summer on record in 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to go with the driest March and April in the last 100 years.
It is evident at Green Mountain. Brian Williams, a state silviculturist with the Department of Natural Resources, uses his caulk boots to dig into the soil between trees to demonstrate.
“Tell me when you see moisture,” Williams said.
Two inches down, the dirt gave way to a wetter brown color. That might be typical in late July or August, but not in early June.
“It is very dry,” Williams said.
‘A tactical advantage’
Wildfires, which typically burned close to 200,000 acres per year in Washington in the early 2000s, have surged to nearly half-million acres each year for the past five. And 2020 took that number even higher, eclipsing 800,000 acres. The cost of fighting those fires in Washington alone is about $150 million per year, not to mention the loss of life that can come with a swift-moving blaze.
At Green Mountain, the Department of Natural Resources is playing some defense before fire season starts. It dispatched Baur and other firefighters Thursday to the 4-acre property logged about a decade ago. While Baur cut, others hauled the remains to areas about 100 feet from the road, establishing a buffer zone.
“It gives us a tactical advantage,” said Matt Caldwell, a fire unit manager at the Department of Natural Resources.
Prescribed burns and thinning are a part of DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz’s plan to boost forest health. Around $37 million more will be spent on such work in the next two years, thanks to the Legislature’s approval of a more aggressive plan to take on the wildland blazes. Fire response also received a $71 million boost over the next two years, as did home protection programs, at $20 million.
Around 100 more firefighters will be added permanently at DNR, but those jobs won’t be filled until 2022.
The “Kitsap-Shelton” area, as it is known within DNR, is a higher priority in the plan because nearly half of all lands are privately owned, and the forests here tend to be middle-aged, vulnerable to drought and may benefit from active management, according to Jen Watkins, an assistant division manager with DNR’s forest health and resiliency division.
Thinning ‘overstocked’ forests
The 2020 wildfire season was the most brutal in years, burning a hole the size of New Jersey across the western United States, killing at least 34 people and choking the West Coast in smoke. Western Washington, which does not typically burn as easily as the eastern half of the state, appeared especially vulnerable in fires that spread on and after Labor Day.
Thinning “increases the resilience” of the forest, said Ken Bevis, a DNR forest stewardship biologist, and reduces stands that are “overstocked” with trees and brush that add fuel to the fire. Thinned areas also survive better in the face of insect infestations and drought.
“Less dense stands have a tendency to not burn as intensively,” he said.
Bevis works with private landowners to help them manage and make resilient forests that aren’t on state lands. Doing so comes with a tax break, he points out. And the Legislature’s passage of the DNR’s funding means more work can be done.
In mid-May, DNR partnered with Mason County’s Department of Emergency Management for a “chipper day.” Local residents could bring trees and brush from their properties for free disposal, a move aimed at reducing fire danger.
When they can’t prevent fires, crews resort to a strategy that boils down to three steps, Caldwell said: building a “box” around the blaze, letting all inside it burn while keeping that perimeter, and then mopping up once the fuels have been expended.
Fire suppression at all costs was the policy for most agencies during almost the entire 20th century. The Big Burn of 1910, a fire that burned 3 million acres and killed 87 people, served as the impetus for that strategy. But doing so may have helped undergrowth in forests prosper, leaving additional fuel that make wildfires today more intense.
Just how much fire and smoke damage hits the Pacific Northwest is still a guessing game. But the risk is here again.
“Fires will happen,” Caldwell said. “How big they get? I’ll tell you in October.”
Josh Farley is a reporter covering the military for the Kitsap Sun. He can be reached at 360-792-9227, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @joshfarley.
Consider supporting local journalism in Kitsap County: Sign up for a digital subscription today.