A bill that would allow premobilization of state resources to local wildfire incidents cleared the state House unanimously on Feb. 18. Now, some stakeholders are pushing to change amended language regarding private contractors that was incorporated prior to the passage of HB 2228.
Washington’s state mobilization plan allows the use of state resources to suppress a wildfire located within a local jurisdiction if the fire services are exhausted or are about to be fully utilized. Since 1994, the plan has been activated 261 times. One perceived flaw in the plan is that wildfires often get out of control by the time those resources arrive. Although premobilization may require more spending upfront, advocates say the benefits outweigh the cost by reducing overall wildfire suppression expenses.
“Lightning storms can overwhelm local mutual aid resources when multiple ignitions occur across the landscape,” North Kitsap Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Dan Smith told the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee during a Feb. 21 public hearing. “Having to wait until an incident has already grown to a sufficient size and scope…puts our communities, citizens and firefighters at a greater risk.”
Washington State Association of Counties Policy Director Juliana Roe told the committee: “in order to properly respond, there needs to be sufficient resources to prevent an emergency from turning into a catastrophe. Having the ability to request additional resources in anticipation of and in preparation for an impending emergency is critical.”
Under HB 2228 sponsored by House Deputy Majority Leader Larry Springer (D-45), the plan would be amended to allow mobilization “when an emergency is predicted to exceed local capabilities.” The legislation builds on existing mobilization provisions created via HB 1389, which was passed in 2015.
An amendment to HB 2228 added on the House floor includes in the mobilization plan the deployment of private contractors maintained through the state Department of Natural Resources in addition to public resources. The Washington State Patrol chief who oversees the mobilization plan is required to consider which resources “will provide the most effective and expeditious response” when determining deployment.
However, KC Whitehouse with the Washington State Council of Firefighters (WSCFF) said that while they support the overall bill, the amendment “would be problematic and challenging for local resources to be able to verify that those resources are fully qualified and that their equipment is usable in a safe way on a wildfire incident.”
A similar take was offered by WSCFF member and retired firefighter Bud Sizemore. “We all really, really like the underlying bill…(but) the House version just doesn’t work very well.”
Chair Sam Hunt (D-22) wryly remarked: “we’ll work on this and see if we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
HB 2228 is scheduled for a committee vote on Feb. 26.