“Treading water” in no man’s land

“Treading water” in no man’s land
The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee plans to recommend policies to the state legislature on how to address wildfires started on land outside of any fire jurisdiction.

The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee plans to recommend steps the state legislature can take to address areas in Washington not protected by any fire jurisdiction, commonly known as “no man’s land.” That includes land managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as well as private property. One option the committee could include in its recommendations is allowing ranchers to create rangeland fire protection associations (RFPAs) like those already used in Oregon and Idaho. If so, the recommendation might revitalize efforts made by some state lawmakers after a bill authorizing RFPAs failed to clear the legislature this year.

The use of RFPAs on some unprotected land is an approach favored by rancher Molly Linville, who was part of a panel discussion at the WFAC’s July 18 meeting in Cle Elum. Linville’s ranch is in Palisades, an unincorporated community in Douglas County. After grazing land that she leased through the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) burned in a 2017 wildfire, she was forced to sell a significant amount of her cattle. In addition to her ranch, other public facilities including the Palisades elementary school is located outside of any fire district.

Although collaboration with DNR and BLM has worked in the past, Linville said there’s lack of clarity around who should or will respond to a wildfire on unprotected lands. “There’s a word that keeps coming up among landowners – and it’s predictability. We need some consistency in communication and some predictability about what’s going to happen.”

She added that RFPAs could “create some form of predictability. What happens on the landowners’ side is that we are like: ‘Is somebody going to show up or not?’ You want us to stand down, or do you want us to head out there?”

However, there are others who may favor a more streamlined, centralized jurisdiction to cover all of no man’s land. A more traditional fire jurisdiction might be better suited for home developments in rural areas located under forest canopies. The residents there often continue to expect services they previously enjoyed elsewhere, according to Kittitas County Fire District 2 Chief John Sinclair. “All of these folks come in and they had built theirs (homes) specifically to keep their property taxes low. If you’re not paying for a service, you shouldn’t expect a service. That’s very important.”

However, one of the problems with unprotected lands is that nearby fire districts as well as state and federal agencies may ultimately have to fight those wildfires anyway. Because they are not located within a fire jurisdiction, wildfires that start on those properties do not fall under the state mobilization plan. This means those wildfires must first spread to other jurisdictions before a mobilization can occur. The lack of an initial attack can allow a wildfire to grow much larger and cost taxpayers more than if it were quickly contained.

“If we don’t respond to them then, we’re just fighting a $1 million fire when we could have caught it at a few hundred acres or smaller,” Tony Craven said at the July 18 meeting. A Roslyn native, Craven is a former Cle Elum Forest Service ranger, the current forestry and Firewise coordinator for the Suncadia Community Council and serves on the WFAC.

However, another dilemma WFAC faces is deciding what recommendations to make to the state in terms of who should pay for those fire services. One option is to annex properties into the nearest fire district. Another possibility would be to create new fire districts for those lands. However, former DNR Southwest Region Manager and WFAC Chair Gary Berndt said new districts would involve additional complications, including electing fire district commissioner. “That doesn’t happen overnight, either. People have to agree to that. It comes down to a vote of those people (on) how much they are going to asses themselves annually.”

Douglas County Fire District 2 Chief Dave Baker said he favored an all-encompassing plan that doesn’t stretch existing fire resources, particularly in areas that rely on volunteer firefighters. “The protection has to be for everybody. I don’t think we should provide protection to unprotected land when we have protected land that’s not protected.”

DNR Southwest Region Manager Todd agreed. “I’d like to see it as a single jurisdiction.” However, he added that “if you’re going to charge people, there comes an expectation of service. There’s got to be the revenue to do it, because we’re going to have to provide that service.”

Sinclair also spoke in favor of consolidating local fire districts into regional jurisdictions to improve their effectiveness. Within Kittitas County, there are 11 fire districts. While 31,000 county residents are located within a single fire district, the other 12,000-14,000 residents are spread across the other 10 districts, according to Sinclair.

“It’s time to rethink the entire idea of every community having a volunteer fire department,” he said. “It’s high time for the state legislature to really look at this issue and say maybe it’s time to provide some incentives for local communities to begin regionalizing their emergency services.”

Depending on WFAC’s recommendations, the legislature may also reconsider HB 1188 sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) or a revised version he may introduce next session. The bill failed to clear the House after receiving a do pass recommendation from the Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources.

“For my community that’s what felt right for us,” Linville said. “We’re ready to do our part. Right now, we’re treading water.”

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