Controlled burn debate: smoke complaints vs. out-of-control wildfires

There’s a growing consensus that we need more controlled burns in our state to help manage wildfires. Fire officials, foresters, the Forest Service, and environmentalists increasingly agree that controlled burning is a tool that can help reduce the intensity of wildfires, improve the health of forests, and give fire fighters defensive space when wildfires spread. It, along with greatly expanded thinning in forests, is part of the solution.

That growing consensus is running into one big barrier: the state’s elected Lands Commissioner, Peter Goldmark. His agency, the Department of Natural Resources [DNR], must give its OK to controlled burns, whether on state or federal lands. Under Goldmark’s helm, fewer controlled burns are allowed on Forest Service lands, and none are occurring on DNR-held lands.

From a recent Seattle Times report:

DNR enforces a strict set of rules aimed at keeping smoke from drifting into communities — effectively limiting the scope of controlled burns sought by the Forest Service and others. Meanwhile, DNR has stopped conducting burns on its own forest lands.

That’s resulting in fuel building on forest floors that feeds rapid growth during wildfires. It also means that fire fighters aren’t getting the defensive spaces that controlled burns create. Those spaces help slow a fire’s spread and can be absolutely critical for fire fighters when a fire grows out of control.

Debate is revealing: general credit vs. specific blame
The reason Commissioner Goldmark gives for halting controlled burns is interesting – it says something about how public policy is often set. Call it a theory of “general credit vs. specific blame”.

The Seattle Times explained Goldmark’s position in its investigative report:

In an interview with The Seattle Times, Goldmark said DNR is open to considering policy changes allowing more controlled burns. But he expressed little enthusiasm for leading the charge, pointing to blowback his agency gets when smoke drifts into towns.

He said the issue hasn’t been raised to him by Forest Service leaders and called it “a little disingenuous of those who haven’t born the wrath of smoked-out folks” to criticize his agency’s approach.

Naturally, when DNR allows a controlled burn, some in the area complain to the agency about the smoke it creates. That’s to be expected, but it’s also an opportunity for the agency to explain the rationale. A controlled burn today might result in a future wildfire that is smaller and creates far less smoke – not to mention a lower risk to property and less danger for fire fighters and residents.

It should be noted that one possible contributing reason to DNR’s hesitance on controlled burns is the Department of Ecology, which in the past has gone as far as trying to fine DNR over smoke. This, like so many other things about Ecology, is not helpful.

But back to our “general credit vs. specific blame” theory. Smarter wildfire management, including controlled burns, may be the best approach overall, but credit for the positive results won’t accrue to one individual or agency. That’s not true for the complaints that come with controlled burns – those get directed at Goldmark and DNR.

So getting the blame off his back turns out to be a bigger motivator for Goldmark then doing what’s best to reduce the intensity and growth of wildfires. That’s revealed toward the end of the article, where the commissioner again insists he’s open to changing his policies:

Goldmark says he is willing to talk as long as Forest Service officials are willing to make the case to the communities most affected by the burns — and share some of the heat if complaints arise.

That’s a tacit admission by Goldmark about what’s motivating his stance on controlled burns. Blame sharing and political cover shouldn’t be the biggest factors in setting this important public policy. At DNR, it looks like they are.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.