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(pictured) Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz

Photo: Elaine Thompson/AP

OLYMPIA – On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) joined experts and advocacy leaders from across the state to unveil House Bill 1168 to create a dedicated funding source for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience strategies.

The legislation – developed by a wide-ranging coalition of firefighters, fire chiefs, tribes, environmentalists, public health advocates, and forest products companies – would create a first-of-its-kind dedicated funding account for wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience.

Commissioner Franz is asking the Legislature to create this account and fund it with $125 million each biennium.

“Out-of-control wildfires now threaten families and communities on both sides of the Cascades,” said Commissioner Franz, who leads our state’s wildfire fighting force. “We can’t afford to have another wildfire season as devastating as last year’s. We know what needs to be done to change the trajectory we’re on – we just need the political will and resources to make it happen.”

“While the smoke has cleared and the weather has changed, we cannot ever forget the lives lost, the communities that burned, and those forever impacted by these catastrophic wildfires. We have to act now to prevent it from happening again. We cannot allow the Evergreen State to turn charcoal black.”

“Our forests are burning, our towns are burning, and Washingtonians are losing homes and livelihoods,” said Rep. Springer, D-Kirkland and the prime sponsor of the bill in the State House. “This is not going to end by itself. Hoping it will is a fantasy.”

The bill comes on the heels of a historically destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 800,000 acres burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden. For two of the last three years, Washington has experienced the worst air quality in the world due to wildfire.

In the face of rapidly spreading and unpredictable fires, fueled by hurricane-force winds, DNR firefighters and local fire departments were spread thin and overwhelmed. There was also limited availability for out-of-state and federal assistance due to catastrophic fires across the West Coast.

On average, fighting wildfires each year costs nearly $150 million across state agencies. In 2015 alone, firefighting costs were more than $342 million.

The state’s trajectory for wildfire severity has worsened in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020.

“Over my 32 years as a firefighter in Western Washington, I have witnessed a concerning change – slow moving fires are being replaced by wildfires that spread quickly to homes and other buildings,” said East Pierce County Fire Chief Bud Backer. “Dry weather conditions that fuel rapid wildfire growth now occur more and more in Western Washington. More and more, these fires threaten the lives of our neighbors. We must have additional resources to combat these fires when they erupt.”

“Wildfire seasons in the West are growing in length and intensity, and the smoke is blanketing our communities and harming our health. Many of the particles in wildfire smoke are small, easily slipping through our respiratory defenses and damage our lungs through inflammation and illness,” said Carrie Nyssen, advocacy director for the American Lung Association. “This exposure can lead to cancer, respiratory disease and reduced lung function. Our children, our elderly, those with chronic diseases and those working outdoors are at an increased risk. Washington can, and should do more.”

Dedicated funding would help bolster the state’s wildfire response, adding 100 new firefighters, new firefighting aircraft and fire detection technology, and support for local fire districts that are often the first ones to respond to wildfire.

Dedicated funding would also fully fund and accelerate DNR’s efforts to restore natural wildfire resistance to 1.25 million acres of forest across state, federal, tribal and private lands. Additionally, support would be provided for community resilience efforts, including fuel breaks around at-risk communities and direct assistance to homeowners to create defensible space on their property.

“The longer fire seasons and stronger fires experienced on the Colville Reservation have destroyed thousands of acres of commercial forests, costing millions in lost revenue for years to come,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Colville. “Consequences also include mudslides, road and bridge destruction, impacts to cultural resources, and, worst of all, danger to human life. We cannot wait to improve fire management.”

“I have seen firsthand how devastating wildfires in our nation and particularly our state can be,” said Daniel Lyon, a former firefighter and wildfire injury survivor. “That is why I believe that it is crucial that we provide the needed funding to our state’s firefighting resources to better protect the public, property, and our men and women who are battling these blazes.”

Approximately 2.2 million Washington homes are at risk of wildfire. Three towns – Leavenworth, Roslyn and Twin Lakes – are at even greater risk than Paradise, Calif., where one of the deadliest wildfires in history claimed dozens of lives in 2018.

“Wildfires are devastating. Small fire departments need the manpower and equipment to attack wildfires early to keep them small,” said Malden Mayor Dan Harwood. “If we have to wait for support and mobilization from federal and state partners, lives and homes will be lost.”

In Malden, 80 percent of all buildings were destroyed by wildfire in September 2020.

Environmental and timber advocacy organizations in Washington state expressed their support for the proposed legislation.

“We have been in a wildfire emergency in Washington state for years,” said Mike Stevens, Washington state director for The Nature Conservancy. “The people of Washington need and deserve meaningful action on forest health and wildfire protection and prevention. After destruction and smoke from the Labor Day fires and others that burned through our communities last summer, the Legislature must immediately address this crisis alongside the other urgent issues our state is facing.”

“We commend Commissioner Franz and Representative Springer for their commitment to address our catastrophic fire and federal forest health crisis with the urgency it deserves,” said Travis Joseph, president and CEO of the American Forest Resource Council (AFRC). “This important legislation acknowledges the status quo on federal lands isn’t working and science-based, active forest management is part of the solution. AFRC looks forward to working with the Commissioner and the Legislature as the bill enters the legislative process. There is an urgent need to accelerate forest health treatments to protect at-risk communities and the clean air, clean water, and the forests all Washingtonians love.”

“This bill protects Washington’s forests by fully funding the work needed to keep them healthy and to prevent out-of-control wildfires,” said Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protect Association. “We can support sustainable forestry, grow our workforce, and protect the forests that are the foundation of our private and public lands.”

Commissioner Franz has made securing funding to address Washington’s forest health crisis and build a 21st century wildfire fighting force a top priority of her administration.

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