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Wash. officials want to improve wildfire response with more firefighters

Citing the devastation and expense of Washington’s wildland blazes, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz proposed a “groundbreaking strategic plan”

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A wildlife burns near Othello, Adams County, in 2017.


By Joseph O’Sullivan
The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Citing the devastation and expense of fighting Washington’s wildland blazes, state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz proposed a “groundbreaking strategic plan” Thursday to prevent and respond to wildfires.

The plan by Franz, who oversees the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), is part of her $55 million budget request to lawmakers that would boost the state’s wildfire capabilities.

Franz’s 10-year plan would add 30 full-time and 40 seasonal wildland firefighters to the agency and add two helicopters to the state’s aerial firefighting resources, with one to be assembled from parts the state already has on hand, a practice DNR has used in the past.

The proposal would create a wildland fire-training academy for different agencies to use. It also would explore the creation of “Rangeland Fire Protection Associations” to help cover certain patches of lands. That is necessary, Franz said, because some areas “have absolutely no protection for those homeowners and landowners.”

And the plan would explore a task force to look at ways to provide a funding source for wildland firefighting in future years.

In a news conference Thursday, Franz described the 10-year plan as an “all lands, all hands” approach to fire prevention and response. The plan, she said, represents input from nearly 1,000 Washingtonians, including from local fire districts across the state.

Franz cited the effects of climate change and new development around forested areas as reasons for lawmakers to get behind her proposal.

“We must act like our safety, our economy and our lives depend on it,” Franz said. “Because they do.”

Franz also called for speeding up DNR’s forest-health plan to allow for more controlled burns and boosted assistance for landowners. She also wants to improve DNR’s ability to engage with communities that have limited abilities to speak English.

Despite record-breaking wildfires, lawmakers in recent years have not agreed to fully fund DNR requests to boost response capabilities. Legislators, instead, have pushed more money toward expensive, court-ordered mandates, such as basic K-12 education and the state’s mental-health system.

State Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, attended the news conference and said lawmakers should make the new plan a top priority.

“I believe that this issue of wildfires and wildfire suppression is as important to the state of Washington as education, as mental health, as other infrastructure issues,” said Hawkins, whose district, which includes Chelan, Twisp and Winthrop, has been badly hit by the fires.

Franz’s $55 million budget request is divided between ongoing funding and one-time money, all of which lawmakers would have to approve in the 2019-21 budgets they draft in the coming months. Of that, nearly $18 million would be one-time money through the state capital budget that would be used to treat and restore unhealthy forests.

Other parts of the proposal combine a mix of one-time and continuing funds. For instance, adding two helicopters to the fleet would cost $6.25 million in 2019-21 budget cycle, and $1.34 million in future budget cycles.

The commissioner warned that a continued federal government shutdown could hamper firefighting efforts. Some wildfire training programs already have been canceled because of the shutdown.

“As our wildfire seasons grow longer, every single day counts in our ability to prepare for fire season,” Franz said, adding later: “This situation is quite literally a matter of life and death.”

Between 2013 and 2018, it cost an average of $153 million in state and federal money per year to fight wildland fires, according to DNR. That time frame includes Washington’s back-to-back record-setting wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015.

Fires those two years destroyed hundreds of homes, scarred nearly 2,340 square miles — and in 2015 killed three firefighters. State lawmakers after those two years had to approve hundreds of millions of dollars in supplemental budgets to pay fire expenses.

More recent fire seasons in Washington — combined with smoke from blazes farther afield, like Canada — have brought a deterioration in air quality here during the summers.

Copyright 2019 The Seattle Times