As last year’s wildfire season rapidly escalated into one of the most destructive in the past decade, some state officials and lawmakers believe it’s time to change strategy on how to not only suppress but also to prevent future wildfires. HB 1168 sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer (D-45) proposes to create a permanent wildfire account, with $125 million in funding per biennium.
In addition to funding through the state operating budget, state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) also receives appropriations in response to wildfire suppression costs. Between 2010-2017 more than half a billion was spent by the state to fight wildfires. However, state officials like Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Springer argue that this “pay later” approach isn’t working, in part because it fails to address preventive efforts such as forest restoration and promoting the Firewise program for communities inside the urban-wildfire interface. Speaking to the Seattle Times, Franz said the agency spends an average of $153 million annually fighting wildfires.
Legislation in past sessions has sought to pay for wildfire efforts through new taxes, but those measures have failed to clear the legislature.
The severity of a wildfire season is unpredictable. Initially the 2020 wildfire season looked to be one of the mildest in , only to take a swift turn later in the summer which resulted in 800,000 acres being burned and virtually the entire town of Malden being destroyed. Although wind speeds and precipitation in July and August often determine how severe wildfires will be, long-term issues such as poor forest health are also major contributors to destructive fires.
“We’re here today to break that cycle,” Franz said during a Jan. 12 Zoom call, calling HB 1168 a “blueprint for creating the self-reliance to prevent the Evergreen state from turning charcoal black.”
Springer described the legislation as “the priority bill for me this session. From a legislative point of view, and a budget point of view, I want to emphasize (that) $125 million every biennium is a lot of money. On the other hand, paying for the cost of putting out wildfires across the state will cost even more. If we think this is going to end by itself someday, well that’s fantasy.”
The dedicated funding would enable DNR to hire more firefighters, expand its air fleet, and fully fund the agency’s 20-year forest health plan. Aerial units such as helicopters can often play a vital role during initial attacks by the local fire districts that in turn can prevent small fires from developing into larger ones that then require state mobilization. East Pierce Fire and Rescue Chief Bud Backer said during the Zoom call that the use of two DNR helicopters was “instrumental” in protecting homes from a wildfire last year in his jurisdiction. However, he added that they had to share those helicopters with two other nearby wildfires.
“If they were available to us the entire time, we may have been able to limit the damage even more,” Backer said.
HB 1168 has not yet been referred to a committee.