Delayed disaster response in Oso prompts new law

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday plugged a gap in state law that prevented the rapid call-up and deployment of fire resources from throughout Washington to the Oso mudslide.

Inslee signed a new law ensuring firefighting resources can be mobilized statewide to respond to natural disasters, outbreaks of contagious disease and nonfire emergencies.

Fire chiefs from Snohomish County and around the state have pushed for such clarity for nearly a decade without success.

Their efforts gained immediacy after a request for help at the March 22, 2014, mudslide was denied because the incident was not a fire. Forty-three people died when the hillside above the Steelhead Haven gave way.

“It wouldn’t have made a difference in the outcome of the day,” said Chief Travis Hots of Fire District 21, who attended the bill signing. “It brought to life that fire services is an all-risk organization. You name it. People call and need our help and we respond.”

Assistant Chief Bob Eastman of Fire District 1, who also attended, said it erases any uncertainty.

“If we have an event in the future, we know when we ask the resources will be coming.” he said. “That’s why we’re here.”

The law also spells out that fire departments, fire districts and regional fire protection authorities are eligible for reimbursement of expenses incurred as part of any mobilization.

“The last thing that should be on a fire chief’s mind is, ‘How am I going to pay for it?’ ” Hots said.

Washington lawmakers passed the original wildfire mobilization law two decades ago. Until the mudslide, state mobilizations had occurred 180 times, according to state data.

The request for Oso was the only formal denial because fire chiefs had pretty much stopped making requests for nonfire incidents, since the state Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion criticizing use of the law for the 1999 World Trade Organization riots in Seattle. The only other nonfire mobilization was for a motorcycle rally in Spokane.

House Bill 1389, which Inslee signed Thursday, clarifies that a mobilization can be called in the event of a flood, earthquake, landslide and other natural disasters. It cannot be called to assist police in dealing with a demonstration or civil unrest.

Amending the mobilization law was one of the top recommendations of the commission appointed by Inslee and Snohomish County Executive John Lovick to study the disaster.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, wrote the bill. He’s been trying to get the revisions for several years.

“It’s sort of a watershed moment for community protection in times of disaster,” Goodman said. “Fire services are the closest to the scene, and we need them there as soon as possible.”

The new law takes effect in July, but the changes are not permanent. They will expire July 1, 2019, because of a provision inserted by the Senate, some of whose members expressed concern about the potential costs to taxpayers if there is a large increase in mobilizations.

Goodman said he understood the worry and didn’t fight the provision. It does mean another round of legislating later, he said.

“Yes, we’ll have to do it again,” he said. “I don’t mind taking another look in a few years to make sure it doesn’t bust the budget.”

And Inslee could have vetoed the provision but didn’t.

“I didn’t really consider it,” the governor said. “I think when you do establish a new regime like this, it doesn’t trouble me that you’re going to look at it four years from now and see if you are in fact advancing the ball.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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