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.