Lawmakers Mull New Wildfire Reform Bill

Lawmakers Mull New Wildfire Reform Bill
A House bill seeks to expand the number of private contractors used by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) during wildfire season, including those who lack seasonal agreements. Photo: USFWS - Pacific Region.

During Washington wildfire season, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) uses seasonal agreements that let private contractors contribute manpower and equipment to prevent and fight wildfires of the type that cost Washington $278 million in 2014 and 2015 combined. However, there’s a problem. The owners and skilled operators of special equipment that can play a pivotal role in halting the spread of sudden wildfires don’t always have official clearance to help.

HB 1489 seeks to change that by enlarging DNR’s master list of certified wildfire suppression private contractors and equipment owners, through greater pre-season outreach. It also explicitly allows DNR to utilize private contractors not included on the master list, if needed to combat wildfires.

Lawmaker: Don’t Leave Local Equipment Idle

The bill’s primary sponsor is Deputy Minority Leader State Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7). Co-sponsor is State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19). He is the chair of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

“I really don’t want to see those resources sitting, when we’re calling equipment from two or three or four or five or six states away,” Kretz told colleagues during a February 1 public hearing for HB 1489 in House Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Kretz: More Equipment Can Make Big Difference

“Some of the people who were falling off the list or are not being utilized, really made a difference in some of these fires. We’ve got to make sure we get anybody that’s qualified. We had contractors in the area that have no intention of chasing wildfires around the state or around the west. They’re not going to enter into any contracts. But these are people who have the qualifications,” he added.

Blake agreed. He told Lens that “we’ve got to find a way to get past the bureaucracy to allow” highly-skilled machine operators to participate in fighting wildfires, particularly in and right around their own communities. “You may have a (bulldozer operator) with 40 years experience” but “they may have no interest in traveling.”

The DNR paperwork required for contractors can also discourage some people who own machines such as Dozer tractors, because they are uninterested in “jumping through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops” to work 20 or 30 miles from home, said Blake. “And then next thing you know, his community’s on fire, and he says I’m here, ‘I’m willing, I’m more skilled than anybody you’ve got out there,’ but he’s not on their (master) list and he can’t be used. It makes no sense.”

HB 1489’s provisions mirror recommendations for improved initial fire response made in a December 2016 report to DNR by the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. A more comprehensive look at some of those recommendations is planned by the committee, but no publication date is scheduled yet. The committee chair is Wildland Fire Liaison Gary Berndt who, under HB 1489, could play an active role in the outreach process to private contractors.

Basing the bill provisions on the committee’s recommendations would have the state “defer this to the folks who know what they’re doing.” That is according to Jason Callahan, directors of governmental relations for the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA). The trade association represents 50 private forest landowners encompassing four million acres in the state.

Tapping Into Unused Private Wildfire Resources

Private forestry groups such as WFPA have placed similar emphasis on better communication and collaboration between state and local fire agencies. The bill calls for harmonizing federal and state wildfire suppression strategies to prioritize the use of private contractors as they do currently with local fire agencies. The master list would also be updated to include the counties each vendor is located.

The bill is part of a broader effort to draw more fully on the private sector as the state prepares for an era of mega-fires. Blake’s committee recently heard a presentation emphasizing the growing importance of preventive burns to stop wildfires before they start.

Passed in 2015, ESHB 2093 removed civil and criminal liability for private citizens attempting to contain or put out a wildfire, if it could be “reasonably considered a public necessity.” It also allowed previously qualified vendors to quickly recertify through an onsite course. That bill was also sponsored and cosponsored by Kretz and Blake respectively.

Preseason agreements require vendors meet safety standards and training. These training sessions occur in the spring when many vendors are busy with work in logging, construction, or other industries. All vendors are financially compensated based on predetermined rates when their equipment is used by the state for wildfire suppression.

Although the bill enables DNR to use contractors without preseason agreements, it still requires the equipment be inspected for state safety standards. Use of the equipment must also be supervised by “recognized wildland fire personnel” when contracted by the state for use in wildfire suppression activities.

DNR’s additional outreach would involve annual reports done in consultation with the wildfire advisory committee. They would include recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the process or any limitations caused by it.

Blake: Smother Wildfires When They’re Small

Blake said their goal is to create “a continuous firefighting effort that keeps small fires from becoming big fires,” which starts by using all resources closest to the fires.

He added, “It’s a whole combination of problems that I think he’s (Kretz) trying to address, but I think the biggest one is, there is skill and knowledge out there that’s probably retired. Maybe he keeps a CAT at the farm just because they’re attached to it, and when their community’s on fire, they are willing to step up. And we’ve got to have a process so those resources can be used.”

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