Supporting initial wildfire attacks

Supporting initial wildfire attacks
Two House bills addressing the state’s initial wildfire response cleared the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee on Feb. 22. Photo: Washington Department of Natural Resources.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) managed last year to keep more than 90 percent of wildfires to 10 acres or less. Several wildfire-related bills intended to further improve initial fire attacks cleared the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee during a Feb. 22 executive session.

HB 1940 introduced by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7) and cosponsored by Chair Brian Blake (D-19) would have DNR determine within one hour of learning about a wildfire if the agency has resources capable of being deployed for the initial attack. If not, they must turn to nearby private equipment and personnel and use them for the first 48 hours. The State Fire Marshal would create a premobilization assistance program to provide up to $10,000 to local fire protection agencies when private contracting equipment is used; if the local districts’ costs for that particular wildfire go above $10,000, they are eligible for $20,000.

During a Feb. 15 public hearing of the Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee, Kretz told colleagues that the “whole point of initial attack is getting on it quick, putting it out.” However, he added that “sometimes cost enters into early decisions on fires, where we’re missing opportunities to put them out quick. I think we all know the price of that. We’ve missed opportunities, frankly. The first closest available asset needs to go, period.”

Washington Forest Protection Association Director of Government Relations Jason Callahan told the committee that “for our members especially in fire prone areas that initial attack is the most important thing, any investments we make in initial attack is the best benefit, we’re going to see the best bang for buck.”

HB 1958 introduced by Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) also attempts to improve initial attacks by creating a premobilization aviation assistance program to help local fire districts with the costs associated with using aerial attacks. The State Fire Marshal would reimburse those districts up to $10,000 per wildfire if aerial units are deployed. Only the amount appropriated by the legislature could be distributed. The pilots and aircraft would also have to be certified. During the 2017 legislative session, Dye introduced a similar proposal via HB 1736; it cleared the House Committee on Public Safety, but failed to receive a public hearing in Finance.

Dye told committee members at the Feb. 15 public hearing that giving local fire districts access to financial aid will allow them to respond more effectively to a potentially larger wildfire that might otherwise end up requiring state mobilization and costing taxpayers even more to put out.

While supportive of the intent, DNR has expressed reservations with the technical aspects of both proposals, such as the capacity to track local resources both on the ground and in the air in real time.

The underutilization of private resources was the focus of HB 1489 introduced last year by Kretz, which cleared the legislature. The law has directed DNR to ramp up outreach to its master list of certified wildfire suppression private contractors.

Also introduced this session,  HB 1188 aim to improve response times by having private rangeland fire protection associations collaborate with public agencies that manage adjacent property. That bill cleared the Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources on Feb. 15 and has been referred to Appropriations.

Improving response time and effectiveness of initial attacks has also been a top priority for the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. In a 2016 report to the legislature, the committee offered recommendations that included increased use of aerial units.

Both HB 1940 and HB 1958 have been referred to Appropriations.

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