Creating a Balanced Wildfire Prevention Strategy

Creating a Balanced Wildfire Prevention Strategy
The legislature has passed HB 1489, which seeks to increase the number of private contractors the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can enlist during wildfire season. Similar bills have had equal legislative support. Photo: Department of Natural Resources.

In a legislative session defined by political divisions over tax proposals and funding basic education, Washington state lawmakers have seemingly found agreement in one area – preventing another year of historic wildfires. Numerous bills aimed at restoring the state’s damaged forestland and improving state and local wildfire suppression efforts have progressed through the legislature without a single opposing vote in any committee or in either house chamber.

However, private foresters and some state lawmakers emphasizing the role the initial fire response plays in reducing wildfire severity and damage to local rural economies. The legislation dovetails with prescribed burning planned this spring by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) in Okanogan County, where the state’s largest wildfire ever ravaged 304,782 acres in 2015.

Ramping Up Private Firefighting Efforts

On Thursday, March 30, the state Senate passed HB 1489, which seeks to increase the number of private contractors the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can enlist during wildfire season. The bill had already been approved by the House in a 96-0 vote on February 27. Proponents have argued that many private equipment owners can play a vital role in combating wildfires in their communities, but currently lack incentives to reach out to the state.

“This is an extremely important bill that we’re doing,” State Sen. Kirk Pearson (R-39) said March 30 on the Senate floor. He is the Chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Parks Committee.

“The important thing about this is working with the local contractors helps the state provide immediate response to wildland fires…which we really need,” he added. “Hopefully with this bill passing, we can put out the fires quicker.”

Restoring Washington Forests

Another wildfire bill is HB 1711, which received a Friday, March 31 public hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee. It had previously been approved by the House on March 6, and passed out of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Parks on Wednesday, March 28. The legislation would have DNR prioritize forestland for treatment within a six and 20-year period, then create restoration plan. The bill would create an account for money derived from the sales of timber from those treatments to recuperate costs. Leftover funds would go to the local land trust beneficiary.

DNR Northeast Region Manager Loren Torgeson told committee members March 31 that the bill could potentially save the state millions in reduced firefighting costs while protecting local rural economies.

The bill is also supported by the Nature Conservancy of Washington. Government Relations Manager Tom Bugert told the committee, “We think it’s going to improve transparency in expenditures in forest health.”

Legislation Reflects Changing Attitude

HB 1711 primary sponsor is State Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7). He told Lens that similar legislation has been introduced by rural lawmakers in the past, but failed to garner support. However, the financial costs of the 2014 and 2015 wildfire seasons convinced lawmakers that restoring state forestland can longer be postponed.

“The other dynamic is the environmentalists have gotten a lot more open to this,” he added. “In the past, they sort of looked at this working forest land treatment as another excuse to go do clear cuts.”

Another forest health bill, SB 5546 has also received unanimous approval. It was heard during a Monday, April 3 public hearing in the House Appropriations. That bill calls for the creation of a forest health treatment plan; DNR would set up a Forest Health Advisory Committee to assist them in prioritizing forestland and a restoration plan. The bill passed the Senate on March 1 and last week received a “do pass” recommendation from the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. At the time of its approval in the Senate, the bill had not received funding. Since then appropriations have been made.

“I think this is also a very good bill that’s going to help us in the future as we plan to fight wildfires,” Chair Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) said at the March 23 meeting of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Although work could occur on non-state property, such as federal and private forestland, trust funds cannot finance those projects, and the work must provide benefit to DNR-managed land.

Private Foresters: Don’t Overlook Initial Fire Attacks

Despite the success of some wildfire bills, the results have been for private foresters, according to Cindy Mitchell. She is the Senior Director of Public Affairs for the Washington Forest Protection Association.

She told Lens they are concerned about other bills aiming to improve the state’s initial wildfire response that have failed to clear House Finance before the cutoff date. Those bills include HB 1736, sponsored by State Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) and HB 1019 sponsored by Dent.

Investing in initial wildfire attacks through these bills can prevent greater costs to the state and local economies in the long run, she added.

Kretz says it’s unlikely the bills will pass this session. However, he added that support for them will grow as lawmakers further appreciate the potential long-term cost savings afforded by these measures.

“You can only make the horse go so fast,” he said.

Restoring damaged state forestland, particularly with prescribed burns, has been heavily emphasized during this year’s session. A 2015 report put out by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) identified nearly 2.7 million acres of Eastern Washington in at risk of severe damage from insects and diseases, which makes trees more susceptible to wildfires. Last year the legislature approved a DNR-led pilot project that carried out prescribed burns at 15 different locations across the state to reduce forest density on at-risk land.

WDFW plans to conduct prescribed burns on at least 500 acres of three wildlife areas in northeast and southcentral Washington, with the assistance of local private contractors. The state agency also plans to carry out prescribed burns later this spring in Yakima County.

“It’s not a question of whether we’ll have fires on these lands, but rather the degree to which we can reduce the damage they cause,” WDFW Prescribed Fire Manager Matt Eberlein said in a March 16 statement.

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