New Law Enhances Access to Firefighting Equipment, Yet Resource Issues Persist

New Law Enhances Access to Firefighting Equipment, Yet Resource Issues Persist
A new state law will provide rural fire districts access to wildfire equipment and vehicles normally relegated to auction by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Photo: http://www.lwfr.org.

Governor Jay Inslee has signed a bill allowing the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to donate older fire engines to rural fire districts that they otherwise would have to sell at auction.

Proponents say the policy exemption under HB 2010 will enable less wealthy communities that rely chiefly on volunteer firefighters to access equipment needed to ramp up their initial fire response, which can play a critical role in containing wildfires before they require state and federal intervention.

Under current policy, DNR can donate equipment and vehicles to local fire districts, but only if the value is less than $500. If not, then the resources must be auctioned off. The average selling price is roughly $5,000.

The problem is, many fire districts located in wildfire-prone areas such as Okanogan and Stevens County that are in urgent need of more vehicles can have annual budgets as low as $11,000. Westside districts with greater resources can easily outbid them, though sometimes the buyer is a private contractor.

Although DNR typically auctioned 10 engines a year, historic wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015 put a halt to those sales. In 2015 and 2016, the legislature approved funding in the operating budget to replace older DNR vehicles, leaving them with 16-17 surplus fire engines they intend to sell.

HB 2010 prime sponsor State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (R-7) says the vehicles should go where they’re most needed, rather than where the money is. She told Lens it’s “very hard to run off a few thousand dollars” as rural fire districts do and successfully bid for fire engines when the “westside has millions.”

HB 2010’s policy exemption applies to counties with an average income less than the statewide average. According to the most recent income estimates from the Office of Financial Management, 33 of the state’s 39 counties would qualify.

DNR spokesperson Joe Smillie told Lens that “a lot of the area where you have wildfires, where they’d (fire engines) be really useful, also have low tax bases.”

His observation matches the findings of a 2014 study by nonprofit Headwaters Economics. The report concluded that “while some communities across the West are taking limited steps to address fire risk, most communities need substantially more financial resources and expertise in order to address the growing wildfire risk. Second, the fiscal reality for most cities and counties is that they are continuously strapped for funds—relying on volunteer fire departments or lacking the resources and staff to enact or enforce regulations.”

This results in tempered initial fire attacks as firefighters wait for other agencies to deliver needed vehicles and equipment, said Maycumber.

“We could be waiting 28-48 hours for them to arrive,” she said. “They assist days after we need the assistance.”

She added that “they’re (westside firefighters) not trained to fight our terrain. We need to have local control in fighting wildfires.”

Experts have also underscored the importance of containing wildfires when they’re relatively small. A national study found that “the relatively small percentage of fires that escape initial response are vitally important, as they account for a disproportionate percentage of the area burned, damage to homes and communities, and injuries and fatalities.”

It’s a lesson learned after the 2014 Carlton Complex wildfire burned 150 homes around the city of Pateros in Okanogan County, said Maycumber. It remains the largest wildfire in state history.

“When you wait, you lose a lot of that ground where you could have stopped the fire,” she added.

Due to an emergency clause, the bill took effect immediately upon Inslee’s signing.

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