Creating the Right Certified Prescribed Burn Manager Program for Washington

A prescribed fire is set in the Methow Valley. (Photo by Ken Bevis, DNR)

By Rob Lionberger, Eastern Washington Stewardship Forester, Forest Health Division, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, rob.lionberger@dnr.wa.gov

Washington state has a unique opportunity to build a legislatively backed program for enabling those who wish to use fire as a tool to do so safely and responsibly. Washington House Bill (HB) 2733, passed in 2018, directed the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to develop and implement a certified prescribed burn manager program with the intent of safely increasing the pace and scale of prescribed burning in Washington. With deliberate thought, input from our partners and stakeholders, and the example of 20 other states in various stages of implementing similar programs, we are designing a program custom-fit to our state.

HB 2733 intends to cover all non-federal burners in the state, including private landowners, non-profit organization staff, private contractors, college students, and state employees, as well as anyone interested in certification as a burn manager in Washington. The DNR will provide training and education for those who wish to be certified, but certification is not required to lead a burn in the state.  However, certification will have several benefits, including a reduced liability standard and potentially streamlined approval for burn permits and smoke management requests. There will also be some continuing education and burning experience required to remain certified. The program addresses decertification of burn managers who violate burning and smoke laws or regulations as well.

The DNR has made some good progress this year already, including a focus group in central Washington for stakeholders, partners, and interested parties to be able provide input during the planning process. We intended to have two more such meetings in eastern and western Washington as well, but the current restrictions on meetings have made those unlikely to happen before the program is out for a trial run, in June or July. The basics of the program came from that initial productive meeting, but you can help shape the final product with your feedback. The team at DNR is drafting the pre-work, classroom curriculum, and field requirements now, in addition to the recertification and decertification processes.

If you are interested in learning more about burn manager certification in all 21 states that have the program, please check out the Forest Stewards Guild report here. I rely heavily on this great resource to understand the various states’ approaches. If you are interested in becoming a certified burn manager or just want to find out more about the program in Washington, please contact me at rob.lionberger@dnr.wa.gov or 509-703-9988.

Rob Lionberger is acting as the Prescribed Fire Program’s Prescribed Fire Training Specialist in DNR’s Forest Health and Resiliency Division. He is currently actively working on the creation and implementation of the certified prescribed burn manager program for Washington state.

Using Fire to Restore Forests in Central and Eastern Washington

Firefighters light a prescribed burn just above the town of Roslyn on a private land burn as a part of the Fall 2019 TREX (prescribed fire TRaining EXchange). TREX partners included The Nature Conservancy, the U.S Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, British Columbia Ministry of Forestry, and private contractors. Photo ©2019 Kara Karboski

By Rob Lionberger, Eastern Washington Stewardship Forester, Washington State Department of Natural Resources, rob.lionberger@dnr.wa.gov

Prescribed fire is becoming a hot topic around the country, and the state of Washington is no exception. In the case of central and eastern Washington’s fire-dependent ecosystems, fire is an essential process, which we removed without providing a suitable replacement.

Now, we are suffering the consequences through catastrophic wildfires and destructive insect and disease outbreaks. One of the best options to restore and maintain fire dependent ecosystems is to reintroduce fire through controlled, forest restoration burns – also commonly called prescribed fire. This is what drives the discussion to the forefront of the forest health problem and it is why I am passionate about being a part of the solution.

So how did we get here? We are largely a victim of our own success.

In 1910, devastating wildfires swept through much of north Idaho and western Montana, striking fear into the heart of the nation. At the same time, the young U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service was beginning to take shape, which led to an emphasis on suppressing all wildfires.

Fire was the enemy, and we were at war.

Soon came the 10 a.m. policy, directing firefighters to extinguish all fires by 10 a.m. the next day. Just a few years later, the Forest Service launched the most successful advertising campaign in history. Smokey Bear became more recognizable worldwide than Coca-Cola. Eventually, nearly everyone was convinced that all fire was bad.

Additionally, public opinion about the timber industry began to change in the ’60s and ’70s, and management of our state’s forests began to slow. With less wood available, mills closed and our capacity to process timber diminished. Many private landowners no longer have a viable market to sell their logs if they want to manage their forest.

The lack of fire, combined with cascading effects on the timber industry from the lack of raw materials and diminishing infrastructure to mill the logs, steered our forests in central and eastern Washington toward their current state, with many overstocked and declining forest stands.

That brings us to where we are now. Overstocked forests surround many Washington communities due to a lack of fire, natural or otherwise. This is, for the most part, regardless of who owns the forestland.

Those born in the last 50 years mistakenly believe that the state of our current forests in central and eastern Washington is what a natural forest should look like. The reality is they are unrecognizable when compared with what was here when settlers first moved west.

Without fire and management, there are very few options for nature to maintain balance. Insects and disease, along with uncharacteristically severe wildfires, fill the void we created. We are in a tough position that will require commitment on all of our parts to set things right again.

There is a lot of momentum building to reintroduce fire into our forests that so desperately need it. Revision of the Washington Smoke Management Plan to find common sense ways to allow for more prescribed burning is already under way. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, is building its Prescribed Fire Program within the Forest Health and Resiliency Division to address prescribed fire needs both within our agency and with our public and private partners. We have many collaborators with us to achieve our goals.

These changes are why I have hope even given the scope and breadth of the problem we face. I challenge you to learn more about Washington’s fire dependent forests. Please visit dnr.wa.gov/ForestHealthPlan or contact me at rob.lionberger@dnr.wa.gov or 509-703-9988.

Rob Lionberger is the Eastern Washington Stewardship Forester with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. He is a professional forester and just completed his 31st season in prescribed fire and wildland firefighting. He attained a Bachelor of Science in Forestry with an emphasis on Fire Ecology from the University of Montana. He is also an over-the-top optimist looking toward a brighter future.

Wildfire and You

By Rob Lionberger, DNR Stewardship Forester for Eastern Washington

If you are reading this article, you are likely a small landowner who lives in or near the forest. It is also very likely that fire has shaped what you see on your land and in the forest around you as a whole, and that fire exclusion has played a large role in generating the forest conditions you consider natural today.

Our views on fire and its role in forest health have changed much in recent years, and it is time to ignite a conversation about what role it has on your property. In an upcoming series of these articles, I would like to explore various aspects of fire; how it interacts with us on the landscape, from both a utilitarian and an ecological point of view.

I will examine fire behavior and how a fire moves through a landscape, how to prepare your home and outbuildings in the fire environment, issues related to fire prevention and suppression, prescribed fire and small private landowners, and smoke effects and management.

From an ecological perspective, we will examine the history of fire in our forests before settlement, fire as an agent of disturbance and change, the role of fire in a healthy forest, fire’s effect on the landscape, how it can be used as a tool, and how fire suppression has shaped the forest. I hope to spark your interest in these and other topics through the coming newsletters as we examine them with the small forest landowner in mind.

Rob Lionberger is a professional forester who just completed his 30th season fighting wildland fires.  He has a bachelor’s of science degree in forestry with an emphasis on fire ecology from the University of Montana.

Restoring and Strengthening Our Forests

Hilary Franz
Hilary Franz, Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands

As we saw this the year, and as the deadly wildfires in California remind us, aggressive wildfires are our new norm. Fortunately, we were able to keep 96 percent of our fires to less than 10 acres — a credit to our brave friends and neighbors who confront these firestorms. But despite our best efforts, it wasn’t enough. The simple truth is that we cannot fight our way out of these fires — we must prevent them. And we prevent forest fires by improving forest health.

That’s why this year we launched the 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan for Eastern Washington. This first-of-its-kind plan provides a framework for systematic forest restoration and management that will accelerate the pace and scale of forest treatments so we can restore forest health and make our lands more resistant to wildfire.

The Forest Health Strategic Plan is bold and can only be accomplished through innovative partnerships, which will include private forestland owners, small and large.

My concerns are not limited to our eastside forests; climate change threatens the productivity of lands on both sides of the Cascades. That’s why in early January, I outlined Four Resilience Principles of a smart carbon reduction policy:

  1. Tackle the root cause – carbon pollution – and invest in reduction efforts
  2. Strengthen the health and resilience of our lands, waters, and communities
  3. Accelerate carbon sequestration
  4. Invest in and incentivize solutions with multiple benefits

For our forests, for example, this means investing in programs that keep working forests working and maximize the carbon stored in trees and soils. It means incentivizing property owners to preserve forestland and not convert it to other uses. It means investments to grow forest management jobs, improve soil moisture storage, increase timber value, sustain timber production, and increase resistance to wildfire and insects. And it means minimizing the unintended effects of carbon policies on residents and trade-intensive industries such as timber and agriculture.

By restoring and strengthening our working forests, by making investments to ensure they are resilient to climate change, we create economic security for the individuals and communities that depend on these lands. I look forward to working with you on this important effort.

Do You Have Roads with Stream Crossings?

wolfs on bridgeMany miles of stream are inaccessible to fish because of barrier culverts or other in-stream structures. The Family Forest Fish Passage Program’s (FFFPP) goal is to help restore declining salmon and trout populations by replacing fish passage barriers with new structures that allow fish to migrate upstream and access quality habitat.

Watch our video highlighting how forest landowners benefit from the FFFPP by clicking here.

WHAT TO DO WHEN WILDFIRES STRIKE

Message from Tami Miketa, Manager of the Small Forest Landowner Office

2014 Chiwaukum Creek fire.
2014 Chiwaukum Creek fire.

A small forest landowner recently asked me what they should do if a fire strikes on or near their property. Who should they call and how should they protect themselves and their property? Considering this year’s tinder dry conditions for forests on both sides of the Cascades, I thought it would be a good idea to provide our readers with the essential “to dos” for when fire strikes.

Whether the fire is on your property or somewhere else, your first response should be to call 911 with the location of the fire. According to Bob Johnson, DNR’s lead firefighter and manager of the DNR Wildfire Division “Our first line of information about fires is often the public. If callers can take a moment to give us the general location of the fire, we can make sure there is a quick response by the firefighters best equipped to handle fire on that particular landscape.”

Dispatchers answering 911 calls immediately route calls to federal, state and local firefighters, depending on the location of the fire. While firefighting resources are heading toward the blaze, dispatchers or firefighters may call you back if additional information is needed regarding the fire, its location and nearby hazards.

“Sometimes we will need to check back with callers to confirm the location or to check on the status of the fire. This will ensure we have the right resources going to each fire. These calls can be invaluable as fires can change quickly” said Johnson. “Overall, our goal is to attack fires swiftly and aggressively before they have a chance to become large.”

MyLandPlan.org advises landowners that if the wildfire is approaching your home, you can help keep yourself and your family safe and minimize the damage to your land if you:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Close all windows, doors, vents and other openings, and draw your shutters, drapes or blinds to keep out sparks.
  • Put on protective clothes, including long pants, long-sleeved shirt, closed shoes, gloves and a handkerchief to shield your face.
  • Have tools and water available throughout fire season – a shovel, rake, long water hose, and water-filled buckets may be helpful. Leave a ladder against your house in plain view in case firefighters need to access your roof.
  • Remove dead leaves, vines and other potential fuel for the fire that is near your house.
  • If your roof isn’t fireproof, wet it down with a hose. You may also choose to wet shrubs and other flammable objects within 15 feet of your home.
  • Turn off your natural gas, propane, or other residential fuel.
  • If you are advised to evacuate, immediately take your family and pets to a safe location.

Once you return home:

  • Carefully inspect your home before re-entering it. Check the roof and all rooms for embers, and have your propane tank, heating oil tank, or other source of fuel professionally inspected before using it.
  • If your home was damaged, have your water tested before consuming it. Damage to your plumbing system can allow your water system to become contaminated with bacteria.
  • Protect yourself while cleaning up debris. Wear a respirator or mask and wet the debris first, to minimize your exposure to ash and dust.

You’ll also need to check your trees for wildfire damage. Signs include:

  • Black scorch marks on the trunks. If the bark has been scorched off or deeply burned around the entire circumference of the tree, that tree is unlikely to survive and should be considered unstable.
  • Burned roots. Probe the ground, six to eight inches below the surface and up to several feet away from the base of the tree. Trees with burned roots are also considered unstable.
  • Lost leaves or needles. Evergreens will need special protection after losing some or all of their needles, as this makes them especially susceptible to bark beetle attack.

DNR’s Wildfire Resources web page, has additional resources that will help you prepare and survive a wildfire.