Policymakers tout high-tech tools for addressing Northwest’s wildfire crisis


Black carbon column mass densityBlack carbon column mass density
A color-coded image based NASA’s GEOS-5 satellite data model shows concentrations of black carbon in the atmosphere over North America on Aug. 15. (NASA Image)

The smoky skies over Seattle have cleared up somewhat, but the Pacific Northwest’s wildfires continue to burn — prompting pledges from Republicans as well as Democrats to beef up the region’s firefighting capabilities.

Advanced firefighting technologies, including satellite monitoring, drone patrols and risk management tools based on big data, received loud shout-outs today during a Capitol Hill news briefing.

“That’s the wave of the future,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Trump administration would step up its coordination efforts with local and state authorities to prevent wildfires and to fight them once they start. “Frankly, we cannot do this ourselves,” Perdue said.

Wyden joined with other senators from the region, including Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; and Steve Daines, R-Mont., to emphasize the seriousness of the West’s wildfire crisis.

“These are not your grandfather’s fires,” Wyden said. “They are bigger, they are hotter, they’re more powerful.”

He said the fires are displacing more people, leading to “clean-air refugees who are literally traipsing from place to place, just trying to find breathable air.”

Murkowski said she got a taste of the region’s hardships, literally, when she and Cantwell passed through Seattle on Wednesday as they were taking a flight to Washington, D.C. “You could taste the smoke in the air,” she said.

Cantwell hailed the use of fire-monitoring technologies, such as the use of Scan Eagle drones built by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary headquartered in Bingen, Wash.

She took special note of an incident in which a drone identified a spot fire that was coming up behind a fire crew. Although she provided no details, Cantwell may have been referring to a night-vision drone detection associated with the Taylor Creek Fire in Oregon on Aug. 6.

Wyden said a key step in the strategy for fire prevention will be the reduction of hazardous forest fuels such as brush and dry, dead trees on 80 million acres of Forest Service land. Perdue and the Forest Service’s interim chief, Vicki Christiansen, said that increasing preventive forest treatments would be a high priority.

“We will use all the tools available to us to reduce hazardous fuels, including mechanical treatments, prescribed fire, and unplanned fire in the right place at the right time, to mitigate them,” Christiansen said in a news release.

Cantwell hinted at bigger issues as well.

“The challenges we face with changing climate and more dire conditions are allowing for more fire starts and more volume in the types of fires that are burning all across the West,” she said.

The link between wildfires and climate change have been hotly debated. Last week, University of Washington atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass laid out evidence that downplayed climate change’s influence on wildfire frequency in California.

“Clearly, climate change is only one possible factor in controlling fire frequency, and may not be the most important,” Mass wrote in a statistics-rich blog entry.

But Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is already being mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2020, played up the climate connection today at an event promoting Initiative 1631.

The measure is on November’s ballot and would levy a per-ton fee on carbon emissions, raising the cost of gasoline in the process. The money would go toward clean-energy initiatives and measures to counter pollution.

Inslee took note of the smoky skies as he was surrounded by children carrying signs reading “Washington Wants Clean Air” and “Our Kids’ Health Matters.”

“Today this smoke may be opaque, but when it comes to children’s health, it has made something very clear,” Inslee said. “And that is, the state of Washington needs to pass this clean-air initiative so that these children can breathe clean air. They deserve that.”

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