A tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp in August 2015. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

A tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp in August 2015. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press file photo)

Editorial: Wildfire threat calls for restoring full funding

Lawmakers should restore funding for fighting wildfires and call on one furry firefighter in particular.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Here’s the challenge in getting anyone during the winter months — lawmakers and homeowners, in particular — to take seriously the threat of wildfires in Washington state.

“It’s rainy, cold, wet, gray skies during the legislative session and legislators have a lot of competing demands” for funding and attention, said Hilary Franz, the state’s public lands commissioner and head of the Department of Natural Resources, which among myriad duties is the state’s largest firefighting agency.

Add to that a markedly successful season of firefighting and other efforts that last year limited the destruction from wildfires, even as the number of fires edged close to the record number of fires in 2015, the most destructive year for wildfires in the state’s history.

El Niño’s return: Yet Franz is uneasy about the coming wildfire season. The West is experiencing an El Niño climate pattern, which pushes the Pacific jet stream south, bringing warmer and drier weather to the Northwest.

“Being in this job almost eight years I have that sixth sense when it’s gonna be bad,” Franz said in an interview Friday. “El Niños tend to be the worst wildfire seasons ever, like 2015 where we had a million acres burn.”

That year, more than 1,900 fires burned across the state, consuming more than 1 million acres and resulting in the deaths of three firefighters. Yet, last year, even as the state counted more than 1,800 wildfire starts, the acreage burned was limited to 164,000, well below the state’s 10-year average of about a half-million acres.

“We’ve been able to keep 95 percent of our fires to less than 10 acres, which is well above our goal of 90 percent,” Franz said. “Unfortunately, it gives this false sense of comfort like, ‘Oh, we don’t really have a real fire problem anymore.’”

A $500 million investment: Not discounting the work of firefighters, of course, that success is due in large part to the Legislature, which in 2021 — after years of increasing losses to wildfires but lackluster investments in firefighting resources, wildfire preparation and forest health — committed $500 million toward those efforts for the following eight years.

For firefighting alone, Franz said, that has meant an increase in the aerial and ground firefighting resources, all positioned across the state. In 2015, the DNR had eight Vietnam War-era helicopters. It now can call on a total of 40 fire-suppression aircraft —dropping water or retardant — including 12 of the DNR’s own helicopters and contracts with 28 other providers. The DNR has also 16 bulldozers and 160 ground-based firefighters pre-positioned.

The effort essentially has placed “fire stations” of aerial and ground crews throughout the state, able to respond to fires within minutes after smoke is spotted.

“Those resources on the ground and in the air are absolutely essential at saving lives, saving property, saving our firefighters and preventing these fires from getting out of control,” Franz said.

And they’re saving money. The larger a fire is allowed to get, the more expensive it is to fight and the more loss there is to wildlands, property and the greater the risk to lives is.

Beyond the success in fighting wildfires, the investments the state made also have funded efforts to encourage homeowners and communities to make homes and neighborhoods less prone to wildfires through the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program and have focused on forest health and resilience to make forestlands less susceptible to fire with brush clearing and prescribed burns. Having set a goal of restoring the health of forests in 1.25 million acres in Central and Eastern Washington, work on 600,000 acres is complete, and the DNR is advancing work on the remaining 600,000 before moving on to forestland in Western Washington.

Smoke on the horizon: Considering those successes, other than El Niño, what’s worrying Franz and others?

Start with a shift in where wildfires are burning in the state. Once seen as a worry primarily for those in Eastern Washington, in 2022 more acreage burned west of the mountain than east, and in 2023 more fires started in Western Washington — including in the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula — than in the state’s eastern half. Because of the denser nature of forestland in Western Washington, its larger population centers and the increasing encroachment of homes and developments near forests, there’s increased potential for greater loss of forests, communities, property and lives.

At the same time, there may be declining resources for fighting and preventing those fires. Even as the state has bolstered its firefighting crews, there’s uncertainly that federal firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies will be available to support state efforts. Past investments by the Biden administration, which provided increased pay for about 17,000 workers, now are caught up in Congress’ inability to adopt a budget, with a shutdowns threatened this month and next.

And, even the state Legislature fell back into old patterns last year, when it clawed back $36 million in funding through 2025 from the $500 million commitment it made two years before. Franz called for a restoration of that funding as essential to continuing the success seen since 2021 and the threat that still lies ahead in a changing climate.

The state Senate responded, restoring full funding in its recent budget proposal. The House in its budget proposal, however, did not restore the funding that it allocated in its own legislation from 2021. Now the two chambers must agree and adopt a budget for the governor’s signature.

Only you: Grateful for the restoration of full funding in the Senate budget, Franz still has a request for that chamber, and it regards a firefighter familiar to nearly all: Smokey Bear.

There’s a proposal in both chambers that would create a vehicle license plate with the image of Smokey Bear, since 1944, the spokesbear with a shovel and forest ranger’s hat who has reminded Americans that “Only you can prevent forest fires.” The additional revenue from the plate would support wildfire prevention education efforts, Franz said. But the bill hasn’t advanced this year, and Franz hopes to see it brought up for a vote before the session ends next month.

A DNR campaign asking people to write lawmakers and pledge to purchase the special license plate has more than 4,600 requests, 1,100 more than the state Department of Licensing requires for such proposals to move on to the Legislature.

Franz, in her final year as public lands commissioner wants some assurance that what she fought for will continues.

“We need people not to forget, because every year, it gets more scary and more frightening,” she said. “And I think — just because we are doing such an amazing job of keeping the fires small and getting on them quickly and preventing disaster and catastrophe — we can’t forget.”

Both the restoration of funding and the Smokey Bear plate are reasonable and necessary requests. Lawmakers in 2021, recognizing both the threat and insufficient past investments, committed the state and its residents to providing the funding necessary to protect lives, communities, homes and wildlands.

Smokey’s right: Only we can do this.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

Liz Skinner, right, and Emma Titterness, both from Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, speak with a man near the Silver Lake Safeway while conducting a point-in-time count Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The man, who had slept at that location the previous night, was provided some food and a warming kit after participating in the PIT survey. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Among obstacles, hope to curb homelessness

Panelists from service providers and local officials discussed homelessness’ interwoven challenges.

Comment: Are we getting our money’s worth from our taxes?

Most Europeans pay higher taxes, but add up our taxes and what we pay out of pocket and we’re seeing less.

FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee is joining state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to propose limits to magazine capacity and a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Editorial: ‘History, tradition’ poor test for gun safety laws

Judge’s ruling against the state’s law on large-capacity gun clips is based on a problematic decision.

This combination of photos taken on Capitol Hill in Washington shows Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., on March 23, 2023, left, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Nov. 3, 2021. The two lawmakers from opposing parties are floating a new plan to protect the privacy of Americans' personal data. The draft legislation was announced Sunday, April 7, 2024, and would make privacy a consumer right and set new rules for companies that collect and transfer personal data. (AP Photo)
Editorial: Adopt federal rules on data privacy and rights

A bipartisan plan from Sen. Cantwell and Rep. McMorris Rodgers offers consumer protection online.

Students make their way through a portion of a secure gate a fence at the front of Lakewood Elementary School on Tuesday, March 19, 2024 in Marysville, Washington. Fencing the entire campus is something that would hopefully be upgraded with fund from the levy. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Levies in two north county districts deserve support

Lakewood School District is seeking approval of two levies. Fire District 21 seeks a levy increase.

Comment: Racial divide over O.J.’s trial is as fresh as ever

The trial divided friends and communities on issues of race and justice.

Saunders: Biden’s student debt relief passes buck to taxpayers

Forgiving loans doesn’t make them disappear, it just transfers the debt to taxpayers.

A Brockton firefighter lifts a protective turnout coat onto a firetruck at Station 1, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023, in Brockton, Mass. Firefighters around the country are concerned that gear laced with the toxic industrial compound PFAS could be one reason why cancer rates among their ranks are rising. The chemical, which has been linked to health problems including several types of cancer, is used in turnout gear to repel water and other substances when fighting a fire. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Commentary: Fighting the threat of ‘forever chemicals’

New EPA standards will require the removal of PFAS chemicals from water. Here’s why that’s important.

Benefits outweigh risks of grizzlies in North Cascades

After moving back to the Pascific Northwest, I began a 40-year long… Continue reading

If you drink alcohol, do so mindfully

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, a time to think about your alcohol… Continue reading

Comment: Rule must change to allow dialysis as end-of-life care

An outdated rule may change to allow patients in palliative care to receive the comfort of kidney dialysis.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.