After another intense wildfire season that involved flames on both sides of the Cascades and poor air quality statewide, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is calling for renewed investment in the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) efforts to restore forestland health and toaugment firefighting resources.
At an Oct. 10 press conference, she announced a $55 million funding request to the legislature that would allow the state agency to create full-time positions and obtain air resources that can play a critical role during initial fire responses.
“This is clearly not just an eastern Washington issue,” she said. “Wildfires in Washington state is an entire state issue. We have a forest health crisis here in Washington state. Our forests are suffering, our trees are dying due to disease, insect infestation and drought.”
A 2015 report by State Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) concluded that roughly 2.7 million acres of land in eastern Washington was at risk of severe damage from insects and diseases. A 2014 report by the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service found that nearly 2.7 million acres of eastern Washington forestland need some form of active management – that figure is estimated to be even higher now.
At the press conference, Dent said that “when we have overgrown forests, we have catastrophic wildfires. That’s where we get the smoke.”
He added that “we need to increase our air assets,” which contributed largely to DNR’s success at keeping 95 percent of wildfires to 10 acres or less this year. Franz’s request would enable DNR to add two additional helicopters to its current fleet of seven.
“Our air assets every single day were spread thin across every corner of Washington,” Franz said.
Although there were no complex fires like that during the 2014 and 2015 seasons, this summer was marked by repeated evacuation notices in rural communities, statewide hazardous air conditions from wildfire smoke and impacts to tourism. By the end of July, Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency for wildfires – which means that any money used to cover the costs taken directly from the state’s “rainy day fund” would only require a majority vote instead of the two-thirds majority normally required.
“Our children are growing up in a Washington without summer,” Franz said. “Our environment is hurting, and it is hurting our economy. Our communities and our taxpayers cannot continue to sustain the losses that the forest health crisis is inflicting on Washington.”
Of the $55 million, $12 million would hire 30 full time fire engine leader positions that are now designated seasonal positions . Franz said that having a primarily seasonal firefighting crew makes it challenging to retain experienced members; her funding request would also allow for specialized trainers to instruct fire personnel.
Earlier this year, Franz released DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan which outlines the strategy to restore state forestland through multiple approaches that include thinning and prescribed burns. There are several prescribed burn projects planned throughout central and eastern Washington, involving firefighters from seven local, state and federal agencies.
“When we manage fire and we do it properly, it helps with forest health,” Cowlitz Fire and Rescue Chief Dave LaFave said at the press conference. He is also a member of the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee, a 14-member group of private and public stakeholders chaired by former DNR director Gary Berndt.
In addition to the smoke, this year’s season also had wildfires within the Olympic Peninsula’s rainforest, which Rep. Larry Springer (D-45) referred to at the press conference as “a wakeup call.”
“If we can clean up that kind of problem we can mitigate the intensity of future fires,” he said. “If we don’t get ahead of this, throwing a billion dollars at restoration after we’ve spent tens of millions putting fires out just doesn’t make financial sense. From a legislative policymaker, budget-writer point of view, I would rather spend a few dollars up front than a whole bunch of dollars later on.
“That’s the argument we’re going to take to Olympia,” he added. “Let’s be smart about this and do this right.”