Committee prepares recommendations on “no man’s land”

Committee prepares recommendations on “no man’s land”

The state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee will vote next month on recommendations for the state legislature to consider on how to address “no man’s land” – areas in Washington outside of any fire protection agency jurisdiction. A discussion at the committee’s Sept. 26 meeting over the draft report highlighted some of the challenges surrounding any policy changes.

A rough estimate puts the total amount of no man’s land at 350,000 acres. One of the potential recommendations by the committee is that those lands be placed under the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) jurisdiction and subject to an assessment. However, the total money collected from those assessments isn’t expected to meet the costs of protecting those lands. According to DNR Southwest Region Manager Todd Weilker, if the agency assessed the land at $.27 per acre, it would only generate an additional $100,000 – which would at best enable DNR to provide an additional fire engine. Another estimate in the draft report puts the total revenue assessed from no man’s land at $150,000.

To make up for the deficit, the committee’s draft report supports the use of general fund money by the legislature to cover the remaining fire protection expenses. According to Weilker, the legislature already provides additional general fund money on top of the Forest Fire Protection Assessment (FFPA) fees to meet fire protection needs.

Another complication is clarifying the definition of forestland within a local fire district jurisdiction but subject to the FFPA levied by DNR. According to state law, wholly undeveloped forestland falls within DNR’s FFPA – not the fire district assessment. However, that interpretation has not always been applied consistently. The draft report notes that enforcing that definition could have an adverse effect on rural fire agency budgets.

The draft report also concurs with a 2017 Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee report on FFPA fees, which recommended clarification of forestland definition and consistency assessment policies.

All in all, the committee believes administrative changes alone could reduce the amount of unprotected land by more than 200,000 acres.

One policy change not among the recommendations is allowing the formation of rangeland fire protection associations (RFPA,) as the committee was “unable to reach consensus.” Instead, the draft report includes both a support and an opposition statement. RFPAs are private organizations run by ranchers who respond to wildfires within the association’s jurisdiction where there is no existing fire protection. States such as Oregon and Idaho already allow their formation.

The concept was the focus of a July 18 committee meeting featuring testimony by rancher Molly Linville, an RFPA advocate. The draft report includes a statement from Linville: “We know we are the problem, and we are ready to be the solution too. We are going to be out there fighting fires – I can guarantee it.” The support statement highlights the importance of initial response to wildfires. “Located on the very land they are seeking to protect, their (RFPA) response time can be quick.”

However, the opposition statement warned that RFPAs “creates the potential for confusion as well as less efficient and effective response. With implementation of this report’s recommendations, protection will be provided across the state – making RFPAs unnecessary.”

The committee also decided against a possible recommendation that the state extend DNR’s authority beyond forestland and into wildland such as undeveloped sage and grass, citing the need for further study.

The committee will vote on the final report Oct. 24.

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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