In a unanimous 96-0 vote, the state House voted Mar. 13 in favor of SSHB 1784, which advocates say would create stronger links between forest health restoration work and wildfire fighting strategies. It is one of the few wildfire bills introduced in the House so far to have cleared the House Appropriations Committee. The bill also now includes the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) among its supporters after the state agency initially expressed concerns over restrictions and costs.
The intent of the bill is to use forest treatment projects as an opportunity to also create defensible corridors for firefighters arriving at the scene of a wildfire. Otherwise, firefighters have to either locate existing breaks or create them. Those breaks can range from a cleared area such as a Forest Service road or a place where fuel levels are significantly reduced.
They can also prevent wildfires from spreading. Following the devastating Paradise Fire in California last year, local residents are planning to build 25 miles of fuel breaks.
Prior to the March 13 House floor vote, sponsor Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7) told colleagues that the bill is an “attempt to make some progress on our forest health and fire problems we’ve had around the state. There’s not enough time or money to deal with everything we should be.”
“this is the kind of smart land management that we need in this state,” Cosponsor Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) said. “It will result in healthier forest and safer communities.”
Under SSHB 1784, DNR is directed to prioritize forest treatments that also create strategically-located fire breaks. According to Kretz, the bill is meant to complement the state agency’s 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan.
Washington Forest Protection Association Director of Government Relations Jason Callahan told Lens that the bill will help maintain the connection between forest health work and wildfires as the state accelerates its work in that area. Although the state has increased funding for these projects, Callahan added that there are still limitations.
“You’ll never have enough (money) to do a whole forest,” he said. “It causes DNR to think about how it all goes hand in hand.”
While SSHB 1784 advances to the Senate, other wildfire bills introduced in the House are struggling to clear the Appropriations Committee. That includes HB 1940 intended to enhance initial fire attacks, HB 1188 allowing rangeland associations to fight wildfires, and HB 1958 creating a financial assistance program for rural fire districts that want to use aerial units during an initial fire attack.
SSHB 1784 has not yet been assigned to a Senate committee.