Counting the costs of wildfire

After last year’s drought and record wildfire season, there’s some comfort in looking up into the Cascades and Olympics and seeing snow-covered slopes.

Where last year’s snowpack was far below average, ranging from 18 percent to 56 percent depending on location, this year the statewide average is about 109 percent, with some areas at 150 percent of average. Enough precipitation fell by the end of the year that the state lifted its declaration of a drought emergency.

But after back-to-back record wildfire seasons, including last year’s wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres in Washington state and cost federal, state and local resources $347 million to fight, state Public Lands Commission Peter Goldmark doesn’t want to see that sense of relief become complacency, particularly among lawmakers.

Record temperatures, drought and winds were a deadly combination during last year’s fires. Last year’s record season saw 59 fires of 100 acres or more on public, private and tribal lands, including the three largest, the Okanogan Complex, the Tunk Block and North Star Complex fires. More than 8,500 firefighters and support personnel were fighting fires at the peak of the season, coming from throughout the state, but also from all but three U.S. states, as well as two Canadian provinces and Australia and New Zealand.

While the generosity from outside the state is appreciated, Goldmark said during a meeting with The Herald Editorial Board, a lack of preparedness is allowing small fires to become big fires and too often requires the assistance of others. It added to the extent of last year’s destruction, including the loss of 300 homes. Most tragically, the Twisp River Fire claimed the lives of three U.S. Forest Service firefighters and injured several others.

To better prevent, prepare for and fight wildfires, Goldmark is seeking $24.3 million in the state’s supplemental budget this session to create more capacity throughout the state to prevent and fight fires:

  • $6.13 million for grants for local fire districts to modernize and enhance their capabilities;
  • $6.95 million for joint training among Department of Natural Resource crews, National Guard and private contractors;
  • $3.2 million to position experienced firefighters in vulnerable communities during the fire season to improve response times;
  • $1.2 million to upgrade firefighters’ radios and communications equipment;
  • $443,000 to increase the use of fire suppression helicopters and airplanes; and
  • $6.35 million to expand prevention and fuel-reduction programs, such as the Firewise program that helps property owners and communities create defensible spaces and limit exposure to fire-prone brush.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget request seeks about half of the $24 million.

Goldmark can make no guarantee that the investment he seeks will mean a reduction in what the state spends in fighting fires, in the extent of lost property and destruction of public and private lands and natural resources, or that lives will be saved.

“But I do believe that it would have kept some of last year’s fires from getting bigger,” he said.

Of the $347 million spent fighting last year’s wildfires, state taxpayers are responsible for $164 million of that.

When the potential losses and costs are in the hundreds of millions, allocating $24.3 million to limit that seems like a worthy investment.

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