Bill allows preemptive state mobilization for wildfires

Bill allows preemptive state mobilization for wildfires
HB 2228 would allow resources provided through the state mobilization plan to be preemptively available in response to a wildfire when it is expected to exceed local fire services. Photo: freepik.com

Washington’s state mobilization plan allows the use of state resources to suppress a wildfire when a blaze goes beyond the capacities of the local fire services. HB 2228, introduced by Rep. Larry Springer (D-45), would allow preemptive use of those resources if a wildfire is expected to require them.

The proposal was supported at a Jan. 15 public hearing of the House Housing, Community Development & Veterans Committee by local government advocates as well as fire organizations.

“We’re very proud of the mobilization program we have here in the state of Washington,” McLane Black Lake Fire Department Fire Chief Steve North told the committee. “But we believe there’s a major weakness in the plan. By having to wait until an incident has grown to a sufficient size and scope to exceed all local mutual aid resources, it’s often too late to prevent a large, costly fire that puts our communities, our citizens and our firefighters at risk in the summertime.”

One of the ways the state has sought to address increasingly severe wildfire seasons is by improving the initial fire response, which has also been the focus of the state Wildland Fire Advisory Committee. A major push for change came after the 2014 wildfire season that included the Carlton Complex Fire – the largest single wildfire in state history.

Springer told colleagues that the fire might have been manageable had state mobilization occurred when the initial flames were first spotted by smoke jumpers. “That’s the kind of scenario we want to avoid. Had we had equipment within a few hours of that location, we might have been able to hold on to that.”

He added that thanks to weather technology and knowledge of wildfire-prone areas, the state has “some predictive certainty on whether or not we may face a wildfire. The notion here is if we think there is a reasonable chance that we are going to face fire in a particular location, then you start positioning your trucks, your equipment, your bulldozers, perhaps even a helicopter…so that they’re positioned and ready to go.”

Also supporting the bill was Washington State Association of Counties Policy Director Juliana Roe. She told committee members: “local governments are on the front lines of emergencies in their jurisdictions. There needs to be sufficient resources to prevent an emergency from turning into a catastrophe.”

While Springer noted that costs will prove a hurdle to get the legislation passed, Roe noted that “having the ability to request additional resources….could potentially save millions of dollars in manpower, property loss…that would be otherwise a detrimental impact to local communities.”

Although forestry experts say wildfire seasons are difficult to predict, the severity has diminished since 2015, when one million acres burned. Last year’s wildfire season was the mildest since 2013 in terms of total acreage burned. Last year also had only one state mobilization between August and September, which is considered a critical period during the wildfire season. The last time fewer state mobilizations occurred in August was in 2003, when no activation occurred. In comparison, 16 state mobilizations occurred during August and September in 2015, 13 in 2016 and 10 in 2017.

HB 2228 is scheduled for executive session on Jan. 17.

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