Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz (left) walks with Mayor Chris Ferrell, Sept. 9, 2020 in Malden. Franz toured the town and made the case for more funding for firefighting resources. Most of the buildings in Malden, which is about five miles west of Rosalia, were destroyed by wind-driven wildfire on Labor Day. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review via AP)

Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz (left) walks with Mayor Chris Ferrell, Sept. 9, 2020 in Malden. Franz toured the town and made the case for more funding for firefighting resources. Most of the buildings in Malden, which is about five miles west of Rosalia, were destroyed by wind-driven wildfire on Labor Day. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review via AP)

Editorial: Make preventing, fighting wildfires a priority

A $125 million request would fund firefighting, healthy forests and protect homes and communities.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There’s little comfort in anticipating a normal season for wildfires in Washington state, because “normal” isn’t what it used to be, even 20 years ago.

Through the first decade of the century, Washington state could anticipate an average loss of about 189,000 acres to wildfires each year; not good, but manageable. In just the last five years, however, according to figures from the state Department of Natural Resources, that annual average has more than doubled to 488,000 acres.

Last summer, a total of 812,000 acres were lost to wildfires, both in Western and Eastern Washington, resulting in more than $150 million spent on fighting those fires, which represented only 9 percent of the season’s total costs, including losses in property, adverse health impacts and lost business. Tragically, one late summer fire in Central Washington claimed the life of a one-year-old boy and left his parents with third-degree burns.

And last summer was second only to the wildfires of 2015, which claimed more than 1.1 million acres as well as the lives of three firefighters.

Nor have the fires been inescapable even for those living in urban areas, far from forests, with smoke from wildfires routinely choking the air during summer. In 2018 and 2020, the state had periods with the worst air quality on record, because of wildfire smoke, posing a threat to those with asthma, lung disease and other health issues.

Wildfires have become a major and routine threat to lives, property and the state’s economic health. To their credit, state lawmakers and officials have responded in recent years.

In 2019, the DNR, under the leadership of State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, introduced a 10-year strategic plan for wildfire response, as well as a 20-year plan for forest health that launched efforts to bolster state and local fire response, make private homes, properties and communities more fire resilient and limit the spread of fires in forests. Lawmakers funded those efforts that year with $50 million, a significant boost over previous years.

Franz and supporters are back before the Legislature this year, this time seeking an investment of $125 million over the coming two-year budget cycle, as well as a dedicated revenue source that will continue and speed up that work for the long haul.

“We have got to be investing on the front end, having the resources in the air and the firefighters on the ground who can get on the fires quickly, put them out and save lives, prevent damage and help the economy and the stop wasting of taxpayer dollars,” Franz said last week during a conversation with The Herald Editorial Board.

That $125 million investment includes:

$70.8 million for wildfire response, including hiring 100 additional firefighters and boosting the agency’s response to nearly 400,000 acres that current is unprotected; two new fixed-winged aircraft; upgrades and maintenance of the agency’s Vietnam-era Huey helicopters; and infrared and night-vision technology for fire detection work;

$35.7 million to fully fund the 20-year forest health plan for thinning and other work on 1.25 million acres of forest; grants and surplus vehicles to local fire districts and departments, as well as funding for training, equipment and personnel; and $1.2 million for workforce development for education and training, to bring forest-related jobs to communities throughout the state; and

$19.6 million to be spent at the community level to develop and implement programs for firebreaks, prescribed burns, creation of defensible green space and help for homeowners to protect homes and properties.

The value that $20 million in community resilience represents is illustrated in the costs and losses seen in 2018’s Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., in which 85 people died, 18,000 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed and total damages were estimated at $16.5 billion.

Washington state is home to three communities, Franz said — Roslyn, Leavenworth and Twin Lakes in Ferry County — that are considered at higher risk for wildfire than Paradise was. A total of 2.2 million homes in the state are exposed to wildfire, according to a U.S. Forest Service risk assessment.

While limiting such losses is worth the investment itself, there are other benefits in the eyes of people such as Larry Brown, the president of the Washington State Labor Council, who sees the legislation and budget request as an opportunity, beyond making forests more resilient and strengthening the response to fires.

“We need economic development in the communities across the state that aren’t necessarily in Seattle, Everett and Tacoma,” Brown said. “This is a great investment in our communities.”

The legislation’s training and workforce components can broaden the legislation’s impact, he said. Along with offering local employment in smaller communities, there is also an opportunity to employ previously incarcerated people who had served on firefighting work crews during their time in prison.

In addition to labor, the legislation is supported by a range of interests, including local governments, fire districts, the forest industry, public health groups, tribes, education and environmental organizations.

“We’re asking the Legislature to see the urgency of the issue at the same scale that we all see the urgency,” said Justin Allegro, director of state government relations with the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

That the legislation, House Bill 1168, passed the House earlier this month with 96 yeas and no opposition may reflect that urgency. The bill is now in the Senate and is scheduled for a public hearing Tuesday before the natural resources committee, with a committee vote set for Thursday.

The legislation, however, is one of two tracks before the Legislature; even with Senate approval, both chambers still will have to agree during coming budget negotiations on how much of the $125 million request to fulfill.

Allegro said there’s public support for the investment.

“We did some polling last year, and there’s willingness across the state to pay for wildfire response, forest health and community resilience,” he said. Across urban, suburban and rural communities, Allegro said, 70 percent were willing to pay more toward those goals, while support was at 62 percent in rural communities alone.

Along with the initial investment, lawmakers also will need to establish dedicated revenue for the fund that the legislation creates, a stable source of funding that the DNR and other agencies know will be available in coming years. Franz unsuccessfully proposed a tax source the last two years, but is leaving those discussions to lawmakers this year.

Almost all state spending can be viewed as an investment, but the costs that Washington residents face — in the expenses of fighting wildfires and in the potential losses from those fires — amply makes the case for spending as much as can be made available.

As damaging as last year’s fire season was, about 600,000 acres of the destruction occurred in just the two weeks following Labor Day at the start of the season, after high winds throughout the state sapped moisture from vegetation. The fires that resulted were widespread, and the response from state and local fire agencies was spread thin. As well, fires elsewhere in the Western U.S. limited the help available from other states.

Climate change and more frequent extreme weather are lengthening the wildfire season on both sides of the Cascades. This, Franz recognizes, will be a long haul.

“It’s taken us 50 years to get into this crisis, and it’s going to take a while for us to get out,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial gave an incorrect result from a poll by The Nature Conservancy; it found 70 percent support for state spending on wildfire response, forest health and community resilience statewide and 62 percent support in rural communities.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Thursday, April 15

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office on Saturday March 27, 2021, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. Vaccine passports being developed to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine have become the latest flash point in America’s perpetual political wars, with Republicans portraying them as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices. (NY Governor's Press Office via AP, File)
Editorial: Vaccine passports can nudge more toward immunity

Used to persuade rather than exclude, the passports could increase access to businesses and venues.

Comment: Low-carbon fuel standard is too costly and won’t work

Similar standards in California and Oregon have increased fuel prices but haven’t reduced emissions.

Comment: Post-covid, work-from-home advocates face challenges

Employers may seem open to hybrid arrangements, but those may prove to be the worst of both worlds.

Comment: Pop culture’s role in confronting racism

The introduction of a Black character in ‘Peanuts’ in 1968 sparked inclusion in other popular media.

Harrop: QAnon beliefs should bar followers from teaching

It’s not about politics; it’s about whether someone so divorced from reality should teach children.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Wednesday, April 14

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Eric Brossard displays his commemorative Drug Court graduation coin that reads, "I came with hope, worked and learned. I have a new life. A life that I've earned." (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Court ruling requires focus on addiction treatment

A court decision allows for a more effective and affordable solution to substance use disorder.

An architectual illustration shows the proposed Learning Resource Center at Everett Community College. The centerAn architectual illustration shows the proposed Learning Resource Center at Everett Community College. The center would replace the college's Libary Media Center, built in 1988. The Senate capital budget proposal allocates $48 million for its construction, while the House budget includes no funding for it. (Courtesy of Everett Community College) would replace the college's
Editorial: Capital budget a bipartisan boost for communities

House and Senate proposals are substantial and needed, but final talks should secure an EvCC project.

Most Read