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Nearly half a billion spent fighting Washington wildfires since 2010

Nearly half a billion spent fighting Washington wildfires since 2010

Between 2010-2016, the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Office of the State Fire Marshall spent nearly half a billion responding to 11,000 fire incidents and 93 mobilizations in 20 counties.

While that $434 million was spent appropriately, there is room for improvement when determining agency costs for fighting individual wildfires. Those were the conclusions of a new report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC). How to make the needed changes was the theme of a December 6 committee work session in which both DNR and Fire Marshall Charles LeBlanc concurred with the report’s findings.

At the work session, DNR representative Gerry Day told panel members “it was certainly thorough and in-depth.”

The minor flaws within its system are among the lesser challenges DNR faces as part of efforts to curb the state’s wildfire severity, which ultimately means less funds needed from the state operating budget and a decreased cost to taxpayers. The 2014 and 2015 wildfires combined cost the state $278 million, and wildfire experts say for every dollar spent fighting a wildfire an additional $24 is incurred due to local economic harm.

The State Fire Marshall coordinates agencies under the Washington State Fire Services Resource Mobilization Plan. That plan is activated when “a local fire jurisdiction and/or region has expended or will expend, all available local and mutual aid resources in attempting to manage fires, disasters, or other events that jeopardize the ability of a jurisdiction and/or region to provide for the protection of life and property.”

However, the report found issues with wildfire data collection. “The Fire Marshal keeps records of mobilizations, but does not have a system to compile data. DNR has a system to collect fire characteristic data, but many of the data fields are incomplete or inaccurate, and DNR reports limited use of this information. Accurate data collection, for a refined set of data points, is needed to improve information about costs and characteristics such as development.”

DNR uses a two-pronged approach with wildfires, suppression and prevention. In October, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz released DNR’s 20-year forest health plan to restore land suffering from high fuel loads and trees vulnerable to fire outbreaks. That work will involve mechanical thinning, prescribed burns and increasing the state’s mill infrastructure in areas where these projects will be implemented.

At the same time, DNR has sought to improve its initial response to wildfires. It’s a task handled by the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, a 14-member group of private and public stakeholders chaired by former DNR director Gary Berndt. Last December, the committee published a list of recommendations for more effective responses.

During wildfire season, typically between May and September, DNR collaborates with local and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management using a “closest forces” concept in which the nearest available firefighters respond, irrespective of jurisdiction. During larger wildfires, agencies use cost-sharing as part of formal agreements to reduce the need for reimbursements.

Although the total costs are calculated accurately, problems arise when determining individual wildfire expenses.

“DNR lacks an efficient way to identify the costs of an individual fire,” the report states. “DNR’s current financial reporting system tracks expenditures by project codes, but each fire may have multiple project codes and the agency does not maintain a central list of all project codes assigned to a fire.”

The report also found that total acreage burned and private/public land management were not reliable ways to determine a wildfire’s costs. More helpful indicators included local development and population density.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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