As the January rains fall in Olympia, the urgency to increase firefighting funding fades for some lawmakers. That’s dangerous.
A POWERFUL wildfire can obliterate a life’s work, a family’s trove of memories, or a stunning natural landscape in minutes.
A few days ago, I stood on the site of Wenatchee’s 2015 Sleepy Hollow fire with local residents Scott Marboe and Bill Larson, who saw all of those treasures lost in that wildfire. Snow now softens the edges of the scorched hills, which will turn sage green in spring. Marboe and Larson are each determined to build new homes that will be stronger and safer from wildfires.
“We had become complacent,” said Larson. “We now know we need to prepare for the reality of wildfire on our landscape.”
While state lawmakers were still in session on June 28, debating whether to increase fire funding, the Sleepy Hollow fire dealt destruction to the people of Wenatchee. Human-caused, the wildfire raced over hillsides to devour 30 homes. Embers the size of softballs were carried on hot, dry winds across the city, terrorizing residents and igniting fruit warehouses more than a mile away along the Columbia River.
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It was a grim preview of the toll wildfire would eventually take across our state in 2015: burning more than a million acres; destroying 307 homes; robbing tribal communities of timber revenue and hunting grounds; and killing three Washington firefighters who were protecting homes on a hillside of Ponderosa pines near the Twisp River. It would cost state taxpayers $164 million.
The destruction of 2015 surpassed that of 2014, when the Carlton complex fire scorched 256,000 acres, the worst wildfire ever in our state. That season cost Washington taxpayers $99 million.
After two horrific wildfire seasons in a row, we need to prepare for the danger wildfire presents to our people, communities, forests and grasslands. Some legislators in both parties and Gov. Jay Inslee have declared willingness to increase funding. Yet, as the January rains fall in Olympia, the urgency fades for other lawmakers.
That’s dangerous. The lessons from 2014 and 2015 must shape how we prepare for future fire seasons.
I’m asking the Legislature now for $24 million to prepare our state for this fire season and beyond. This is roughly twice what Gov. Inslee proposed in his budget.
We need more firefighters. We need them positioned in the most fire-prone areas of the state. We need to provide grants to local fire districts to boost their capabilities. We need to train volunteers, National Guard troops, and local firefighters alongside professional Department of Natural Resource firefighters. We need experienced fire commanders to lead them, using modern radio equipment. We need to thin and maintain our forests, and help homeowners and communities clear vegetation to protect themselves from fire.
It’s clear our landscape is changing. Extreme climatic conditions have weakened the natural resistance of Washington’s grasslands and forests. More communities are facing the prospect of catastrophic wildfire danger.
During 2015 in Walla Walla, the simple act of harvesting wheat triggered the Blue Creek fire, threatening the water supply of 30,000 people. The Paradise fire in the Olympic rain forest burned for months. The summer resort destination of Chelan was made a ghost town as fire ripped through nearby hills. Seattle, Portland and most of Eastern Washington were at times in a haze of smoke.
With the hard wildfire facts of 2014 and 2015 in front of them, the choice the Legislature makes this year is crucial. Communities, firefighters, environmental groups, tribes and those who live in vulnerable, fire-prone areas across the state are looking to them for real action.
The last two wildfire seasons have proved the enormous cost of complacency. We must confront the reality of wildfire in Washington, and spend the money needed to prepare and protect people, homes and resources.