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.