Too Much Smoke Means Not Enough Fire

September 14, 2021
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Sometimes, to stop fires, you have to start them.

Democrats like President Biden often point to the West’s devastating wildfires as evidence of climate change, and while that’s certainly contributed to some of the events we are seeing unfolding across the country, it’s only part of the picture. The rest? Burdensome government regulations inhibiting proper forest management and “sue-and-settle” lawsuits that prevent any actionable plans from being implemented.

In Central Washington, if you step outside today, you’re bound to be inundated by smoke. Indeed, the Yakima Valley and surrounding areas have had “unhealthy” levels of smoke for most of the summer. It’s easy to point to the ongoing fires as the cause, but the real problem is why we’re experiencing these fires in the first place.

Simply put, we haven’t been having enough of them.

This logic may seem counterintuitive, but regular fires play a vital role in a forest’s ecosystem, clearing out excess brush and helping seeds to sprout while leaving many large trees intact. When we allow fuel to build up and dead trees to pile on one another, once-healthy forests become a tinder box ready to light at the merest hint of a spark. The ensuing fires are hotter and larger than what would otherwise naturally occur, burning everything in sight—even scorching the soil. These fires are not only incredibly destructive to the environment but release vast quantities of particulate matter into the atmosphere, resulting in dangerous air quality for hundreds, if not thousands, or miles around.

For decades, federal, state, and local agencies have prioritized fire suppression over prevention, pouring billions of dollars into hiring and training firefighters, buying and maintaining firefighting equipment, and educating the public on fire safety.

Unfortunately, improper forest management has resulted in a backlog of trees in forests now choked with brush and other dry fuels. According to USFS, one researcher studying the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California found records from 1911 showing just 19 trees per acre in one section of the forest. Over a hundred years later, that number is 260 trees per acre.

Targeted, prescribed burns are a proven, effective way to properly manage and mechanically thin our forests when needed. Unfortunately, prescribed fires are heavily regulated by states and are subject to strict air-quality standards. What this red tape ignores, however, is that when a wildland fire rages, unhealthy air quality conditions skyrocket, causing more harm than necessary. Preventing these catastrophic fires may incur some short-term costs, but the long-term benefits are not to be ignored.

That’s why I’m working in Congress to promote proper forest management, through common-sense policies like the Stop CATASTROPHES Act, which aims to reduce our risk of wildfires and improve our national forests and federal lands by enhancing an important tool known as “categorical exclusions,” and by urging the Administration to take action within federal agencies to enact the management and wildfire prevention policies our local land managers and partners know to be effective.

Unfortunately, there’s much more to do. Many of these regulations are managed at the state level, and until our legislators and our governor are on the same page, we will continue to be bombarded by completely preventable, yet catastrophic, wildfires.

Active forest management enables us to reduce hazardous fuels and is an important part of protecting our communities from disaster. It’s clear: we need to properly manage our forests, allowing them to burn cyclically. And once we can manage our fires, we can finally say goodbye to this oppressive smoke.