Risking a summer of smoke

The “rainy day” fund is the name given to unspent money that state lawmakers set aside each session, held in reserve for emergencies, unforeseen needs and economic downturns.

But considering where sizeable chunks of those reserves have gone the last two years, maybe we ought to rename it the “smoky day” fund.

Last year’s record-breaking wildfires in Washington, in addition to killing three firefighters, burned more than 1 million acres and cost $347 million to fight, split among federal, state and local jurisdictions. Much of Washington state’s share of $178 million wasn’t paid until this spring when the Legislature approved its supplemental budget. Last year’s fires followed those of 2014, which until then had been the worst fire season in the state, consuming more than 380,000 acres and costing the state $81 million to fight.

Now, just halfway through May and a month into wildfire season, state, federal and local crew are fighting two blazes, not in Eastern or Central Washington, but in Snohomish County. The Proctor Creek fire, near Gold Bar, has burned about 352 acres and was about 90 percent contained by Monday morning. Near Oso, the Hot Shot fire, about 50 percent contained, has consumed about than 67 acres. Cooler weather and rain in Snohomish County over the weekend allowed firefighters — about 350 on 15 crews — to slow the fires’ progress.

This winter’s ample rain and snowfall in the Cascades have presented good and bad news. The drought declaration in Western Washington ended and snowpack in the Cascades returned to near normal, but the rain also has spurred growth in the forests, resulting in a potential fuel source for wildfires.

Through spring, summer and into autumn, the National Weather Service forecasts normal precipitation but above-normal temperatures, potentially drying out those sources of fuel.

A cause has not been determined for either of the current fires in Snohomish County, but both should serve as sufficient call for caution for those of use who work and play in the forests here and throughout the state.

It should also light a fire under the feet of lawmakers to better provide funding for forest health measures and firefighting capabilities.

Three months ago we urged the Legislature to fully fund the supplemental budget request of state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, who, following the last two fire seasons, sought almost $25 million that would have provided grants for local fire districts for equipment; joint training among crews from state, National Guard and private contractors; positioning of experienced crews to improve response times; an upgrade of communications equipment and an expansion of prevention and fuel-reduction programs, such as Firewise.

The Legislature this spring funded only $6.7 million of that request. The year previous, Goldmark made a similar request, of which only $11 million was provided.

The federal government, like the state, has dragged its feet in providing adequate funding and reform of the response to wildfire. U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Sen. Lisa Murkowksi, R-Alaska, sponsored legislation that could ease the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of “fire borrowing,” fighting this year’s fires with next year’s fire prevention and forest health funding budget.

We can hope that the county’s two early-season fires are outliers and aren’t a harbinger of yet another record-breaking wildfire year.

But after the last two wildfire seasons, followed by two less-than-impressive legislative responses to the threat of wildfire, it won’t be a surprise next year when the state again must lean on its “smoky day” fund.

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