The damage caused by Washington’s increasingly devastating wildfires hasn’t gone unnoticed in Olympia.
Four bills passed this session will take effect next month to help state and local firefighters more effectively prevent and combat wildland fires.
Although some funding remains uncertain, legislators hope better collaboration and more prevention efforts will avoid a repeat of the unprecedented wildfire seasons of 2014 and 2015, and perhaps this year.
“So many different times when we have a wildfire I know the state Department of Natural Resources does what it can,” said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
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“But over and over we’ve had people complain that maybe DNR could do more,” she said. “So that’s what we’ve been working on, is making it easier and more beneficial, especially for our rural areas, to have more help.”
The department’s wildfire policy advisor, Loren Torgerson, praised Warnick and others, including Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, for prioritizing forest health.
Additional resources will be critical, Torgerson said, as climate change continues to make the forests and arid steppe hotter and drier.
A pair of complementary bills from the House and Senate — HB1711 and SB5546 — emphasize the importance of collaboration and accountability in fighting wildfires.
As a result of the legislation approved earlier this session, Torgerson said his department will start in Eastern Washington as it seeks to identify 200,000 acres every two years for treatment to prevent the kinds of catastrophic wildfires that resulted from decades of fire suppression that caused enormous buildups of fuel on forest floors.
The legislation proposes treatment, such as prescribed burning, selective logging and other methods, on 1 million acres of land by 2033.
Torgerson said the DNR asked for $15 million for the projects, a $5 million increase from 2015. But as of Thursday evening, it was unclear exactly how much money will be allocated in the budget agreement.
The legislation largely codifies what’s already being done, but the renewed focus on prevention will help more people learn about programs such as one near Tampico, where the DNR is showing landowners how to better protect their property from fires, said Jason Emsley, a local landowner assistance forester with that agency.
A key element, Emsley said, is to work collaboratively with not only private property owners but also state and federal agencies such as the Forest Service and state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
That includes cost-share programs with small, private landowners covering 50 percent of the cost for clearing fuels around their property, as well as free visits Emsley makes to offer advice and identify problematic areas.
More money for the DNR would help local fire districts such as West Valley, which works with the state agency on prevention programs as well as fighting wildland fires.
West Valley Fire Chief Nathan Craig said the two agencies worked together during last week’s 121-acre Slaven Road fire, setting up a unified command to ensure the best use of resources. They jointly respond to areas in the North and South fork of Ahtanum Creek west of Tampico, where they’ve created a fire-wise community with a good water supply and smart green space around properties to reduce fuels.
“Those are areas that are easier to protect,” Craig said. “Not that we would not protect homes, but when a wildfire comes into an area with structures in it, we have to go into what we call triage.”
That means deciding what to save based on the fuels surrounding structures, since firefighters can’t afford to spend too much time and resources on one place while others burn down. To help ensure all the resources available can be used to fight fire, another law, HB1489, requires the DNR and local fire districts and departments to compile lists of qualified private firefighting contractors and equipment owners.
Warnick said she has repeatedly heard stories, especially in north-central Washington, of people willing to help fight fires only to be turned away because they lacked certification. That’s not as much of a problem in Yakima and Kittitas counties, but Craig said it’s sometimes difficult to ensure that landowners trying to save their property do so safely.
He credits lobbyists for much of the new guidelines requiring private contractors to be more involved, noting he reached out to a company just last week while putting together a team to fight a Chelan County fire. Torgerson said the DNR can improve its firefighting ability by strengthening relationships with wildland fire contractors throughout the state.
Turning up the heat
After fires burned more than 1 million acres and destroyed nearly 500 structures in the record-breaking 2015 season, legislators such as Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, decided to take action.
He created the Fire Caucus in the Legislature to help identify ways to improve not just the way the state fights fires, but its efforts to prevent them by improving forest health. A career in aviation, primarily as a cropduster, gave Dent some first-hand experience in aerial strategies. He also met with firefighters from Spain who face wildfire concerns on a scope similar to Washington.
“I think we can do better,” Dent said. “I think we can be more aggressive and we can push back on these fires a little harder and become more prepared.”
He supports the DNR’s approach, and Torgerson appreciates the need for accountability when funding is tight. But he emphasized that addressing the rapid decline in forest health requires a larger response and efficient collaboration between the department, tribes, local, state and federal agencies.
Another bill that passed this year, SB5198, requires the DNR to present new reports regarding fire retardants, foams and gels, as well as the appropriate way to apply them.
But all that additional attention and emphasis won’t guarantee funding in a contentious budget year that includes significant demands from schools, mental health and corrections.
Emsley said his program’s dependency on the state budget could be reduced thanks to the passage of HB1711, which would create a revolving fund providing up to $10 million from timber sales to go directly to future treatments programs.
“If the program is managed correctly, it’s going to be self-sufficient, in my opinion,” Emsley said, noting it could take some time to work out the details.
Torgerson said that account, like the additional funding, would help DNR increase its speed and scale in fighting wildfires. If the funding comes up short, they’ll need to look at priorities and focus on areas where treatment is most needed.