Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed supplemental budget released this week calls for $15 million for wildfire preparedness, but the state’s top fire official says it’s not enough.
Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark is requesting $24.3 million from the Legislature next year for equipment, training and fuel-reduction work as lawmakers face a record-high $165 million bill for the 2015 wildfire season.
More than a million acres burned across the state in 2015, destroying more than 300 homes and claiming the lives of three firefighters. The firefighting cost alone was over $300 million, including the state and federal costs.
“Hopefully that $160 million bill will get everyone’s attention,” said Goldmark, the elected head of the Department of Natural Resources, said in an interview with the Herald-Republic on Friday.
“We have to make reasonable investments up front to get ahead of this problem.”
The state had budgeted $27 million for firefighting costs, but drought, a heat wave, unhealthy forests, an increasing number of homes in fire-prone forests, and overstretched firefighting resources pushed 2015 to “catastrophic” levels of damage, Goldmark said.
Last session, Goldmark requested $4.5 million for training and equipment. Lawmakers provided $1.2 million.
For this supplemental budget, Goldmark’s request and Inslee’s proposal include grants to help local fire districts, more cross-agency training, increases to fire management staff, and more radio and aviation equipment. But Goldmark wants more funding for local districts, training and management staff.
When lightning storms are predicted for the region, the DNR prepares by moving firefighters and equipment to areas forecast to be at risk.
But there’s no such forecast for human-caused fires, Goldmark said, so the state relies on local fire districts. More training and equipment for those typically volunteer firefighters is key to containing fires while they are still small, he said.
“We need to build the local capacities so that we can respond in hours, not days,” Goldmark said.
In addition to better prepared firefighters, Goldmark wants $6.3 million to help prepare forests and communities through fuel-reduction treatments and other precautions, such as planning evacuation routes and establishing defensible space around homes.
Even $6.3 million is small compared to the estimated need for restoration across hundreds of thousands of acres in Eastern Washington’s dense, stressed, fire-prone forests. But foresters say targeting such efforts, especially around communities, will lower the risks and costs of catastrophic fire in the future.
“But it’s not just about the money,” Goldmark said. “Lives and homes and businesses have been lost, communities have been traumatized, and the ranches and tribal forests that burned down, those are irreplaceable.”