The death toll from California’s wildfires continues to increase, at more than 60 dead — most from the Camp Fire that destroyed the Northern California town of Paradise — and with more than 600 unaccounted for. Washington state has sent hundreds of firefighters from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and community fire departments to assist with efforts to contain the fires.
And we’re not far removed from the wildfires throughout the Northwest and British Columbia this summer that left Western Washington skies brown and choked and prompted warnings in August of the region’s “very unhealthy” air quality.
Climate change and drought throughout the West are lengthening the wildfire season — not just in California, but even in Washington state. In 2015, a record year for wildfires here, a fire in one wilderness rainforest of Olympic National Park — allowed to burn since that May — was finally extinguished by heavy November rains.
This year, more than 350,000 acres burned in Washington state. That followed the 2015 season during which a record of more than 1 million acres burned and three firefighters died battling a wildfire near Twisp.
It’s encouraging then that state and national public officials and lawmakers are renewing calls for funding that is necessary not just to fight wildfires but to lessen their severity and prevent them in the first place.
A bipartisan group of U.S. senators, including Maria Cantwell, D-Washington; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, have requested funding in next year’s budget to bolster the fleet of retired military and private air tankers and water scoopers with additional aircraft useful in the initial hours of firefighting to prevent fires from growing to massive, uncontrollable blazes.
Earlier this year, Cantwell and other Senate and House members established a contingency account with $2 billion in annual funding through 2027 that is intended to end the practice of borrowing money to fight fires from accounts budgeted for forest management, fuel reduction and other fire prevention work.
At the same time, Washington state Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz presented her budget for the Department of Natural Resources, including a record request of $55 million for fire prevention and firefighting resources.
Franz is asking Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature to consider $38 million in operations spending and $17 million in capital investments that will provide a quicker and more robust response to wildfires and improve efforts to prevent fires and improve the health of the state’s public and private forestlands.
Among its provisions, the budget request would:
Make 30 seasonal firefighter jobs year-round positions, adding to the DNR’s 43 full-time firefighters, allowing more employees to thin overly dense forests when not on fire lines;
Add 80 inmate firefighters to assist in firefighting and prevention work;
Add two helicopters to the DNR’s fleet of eight, to allow for quicker response to fires; and
Increase funding for public outreach on preparing homes, communities and forestlands to reduce fire losses.
Franz’s $55 million request is significant, more than double what was requested by the previous DNR chief in 2016, but the investments made earlier may be already showing returns.
More than 350,000 acres burned this year, with the DNR and other firefighters responding to more than 1,700 wildfires this year. But even with the second-most number of fires reported, Franz noted in a news release, most were kept to 10 acres or less and didn’t develop into the larger and more destructive wildfires seen just three years earlier.
Firefighting and prevention efforts are needed on both sides of the Cascades; about 39 percent of this year’s fires occurred in Western Washington.
The budget proposal, Franz said, “reverses the trajectory of larger, more destructive wildfires by increasing the speed and scale of efforts to restore the health of Washington’s forests.”
President Trump was rightly criticized for his initial reaction to the Camp Fire’s destruction, blaming in a tweet California’s “gross mismanagement of the forest” and threatening to withhold federal aid. The president’s tweet ignored the presence of residential communities in regions of mixed shrubland, grassland and forests as well as the part played by the state’s long drought. It also ignored the fact that much of the forestland in the state — as is the case in Washington state — are national forests, managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Regardless, wildfires don’t stay behind fences. And hazards within forest lands, whether public or private, are hazards to all lands and communities.
State and federal officials must make necessary investments to prevent, limit and fight wildfires, but we as taxpayers must be prepared to fund those investments.
“Only you,” as Smokey Bear has long reminded us, “can prevent forest fires.”
Update: The above editorial has been updated to reflect the death toll and numbers of people unaccounted for as of Friday morning.
Donate to relief efforts
Among organizations accepting donations to aid wildfire relief efforts in California are
American Red Cross: www.redcross.org
California Community Foundation: www.calfund.org
California Fire Foundation: www.calfirefoundation.org
Caring Choices: www.caring-choices.org
Salvation Army: westernusa.salvationarmy.org
United Way of Northern California: www.norcalunitedway.org
United Way of Greater Los Angeles: www.unitedwayla.org