The threat of wildfires — especially after 29 straight days of rain to start the year for most of Western Washington — might seem only an unpleasant memory of smoke-filled air from a few summers past or a sad report from half a world away in Australia.
But Washington state’s experience with wildfires in recent years, along with a changing climate, recent drought and fickle weather patterns should be warning enough against complacency.
In 2015, the state Department of Natural Resources responded to more than 1,500 wildfires, which consumed a record 1.14 million acres and resulted in the deaths of three firefighters fighting the Okanogan Complex fire near Twisp. In 2018, the DNR responded to another record: 1,850 wildfires, but fire suppression efforts by DNR and others limited the area burned to 440,000 acres. Damage was further limited last year when 130,000 acres burned in 1,165 wildfires.
Over the past five years, wildfire suppression has cost the state an average of $153 million a year, and those costs don’t factor in property and forestland losses, disaster response costs, infrastructure damage, lost business for local economies and the health effects of smoke-laden air even hundreds of miles from the fires. Children, the elderly and those with asthma and other lung illnesses are especially vulnerable when smoke from wildfires has thickened the air.
In recent years, however, the funding for fighting wildfires — as well as efforts to prevent them — too often followed only after the fires were out, if at all. As recently as 2017, an impasse between Democrats and Republicans over an unrelated issue kept the Legislature from adopting a capital budget that year; along with delaying school and other construction, the capital budget failure withheld $15 million from the DNR that was intended for forest health work that would have removed dead and dying tress from forests, thinned other dense stands and replanted areas destroyed in earlier fires, potentially reducing the risks and extent of damage from wildfires.
The record has improved more recently. State lawmakers in last year’s budget allocated $50 million that bolstered DNR’s firefighting staff and equipment, yet it’s a struggle every two years for the state’s largest firefighting agency to receive the funding it needs for suppression and work to restore healthy forests.
The DNR, under the leadership of State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, has responded with a 10-year strategic plan for wildfire response, as well as a 20-year plan for forest health.
Included in the wildfire plan are requests to add 42 fulltime firefighters, 15 fire trucks and their leaders and at least one new helicopter to replace the oldest of DNR’s Vietnam War-era Hueys. As well, there’s a funding request to help fire-prone communities prepare property to limit the risk of fire, help for the owners of small forests and other properties and training assistance for local fire districts and departments.
Likewise, the forest health plan seeks funding for tree thinning and prescribed burns.
Last year, Franz requested legislation that would provide a sustainable and reliable source of funding for both programs. A Senate bill last year was heard in committee but didn’t advance to the floor. This year, bills in House and Senate were brought back for reconsideration this year but have not budged since, with less than a month remaining before session’s end.
Both bills would seek that funding from nearly everyone in the state, adding a modest tax to home and auto insurance policies. The Senate bill seeks a half-percent increase to the existing 2 percent tax on property and casualty insurance premiums, resulting in an estimated increase of about $12 a year for most purchasing insurance policies. The House bill would charge a flat $5 annual fee per policy, meaning that a homeowner with two vehicles would pay an additional $15 a year.
Each year, the additional tax would bring in about $63 million to a newly created Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Account.
For some, the justification for tying the tax to home and auto insurance might seem a stretch. True, wildfires don’t pose a risk to every home, particularly those in urban and some suburban neighborhoods. But a significant number of homes, those located in “wildland urban interface” areas are at risk, and the number of homes being built in such rural regions has increased in recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has reported. An analysis prepared by the DNR estimated that of the more than 3.1 million households in the state, 1.4 million are within areas in close proximity to forests and wildlands.
In the 39th Legislative Distinct, which includes nearly all of eastern Snohomish County’s rural areas, there are as many as 57,000 homes at greater risk for wildfire, compared to less than 10,000 not in wildland regions. Snohomish County’s 38th and 44th legislative districts each have more than 30,000 homes in ares where wildlands and residences meet.
Insurance companies, not surprisingly, spoke against the proposal last year during a hearing before the Senate Ways and Means committee, suggesting they weren’t opposed to the work outlined but wanting another source of funding used.
But considering how the forest health and fire suppression efforts would work to limit risk and damage to the properties those companies insure, the additional tax — which they could choose to pay themselves rather than pass on to their customers — could be a wise investment.
At the same time, those paying insurance premiums could expect to avoid future rate increases if losses can be held to a minimum.
Washington state could again get lucky and experience a wildfire season like last year’s, where the number of fires and acreage burned are relatively low. But those who lost a home or property in a wildfire or were confined indoors because of a recent summers’ choking haze might prefer not to take that risk.