Are big wildfire seasons and the acrid smoke that chokes our communities the new normal?
It’s a question we heard last summer, when smoke blanketed our communities and Washington’s air quality was the worst in the world. We heard it when our firefighters responded to 1,850 wildfires in 2018 — a record number. We heard it again last month, when we saw dozens of unseasonal wildfires spark throughout Western Washington.
The answer: Without action, it will be. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be.
A new plan in the state Legislature will create a dedicated funding source for fighting wildfires and forest health — Senate Bill 5996. The innovative plan creates the Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account, which will dedicate $62.5 million a year to tackle our wildfire crisis. It will fund immediate suppression needs, allowing the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), our state’s wildfire fighting agency, to build a 21st century wildfire fighting force.
New helicopters, more firefighters and improved training will ensure our wildland firefighters have the tools they need to respond quickly and effectively during challenging fire seasons. This investment will, quite literally, save lives and save communities. Not only will we be more effective at putting fires out, we’ll save money by doing the work necessary to reduce severe wildfires in the future.
The account will fund DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which will restore the health of 1.25 million acres of diseased and dying forests across Central and Eastern Washington. These unhealthy and weakened forests make it easier for severe wildfires to start and spread.
That’s where the big savings come in. The money we spend to make our forests healthier and more fire-resistant will be far less than what it costs to fight the larger, more severe wildfires that have become the norm.
The plan also offers benefits beyond reducing wildfire. By restoring forest health, we’ll make our forests more resistant to climate change, protect sources of clean water and improve salmon habitat.
We will pay for these critical investments by increasing the tax on premiums for property and casualty insurance from 2 % to 2.52 %. This 0.52 % increase pencils out to less than $2 per month for the average household.
Asking families for more is not a request we make lightly. But we are already paying for wildfires, and paying more than we need to. Wildfire suppression costs in Washington averaged $153 million per year over the past five years. And suppression costs make up only 9 % of the total cost of wildfires once lost business, infrastructure, disaster recovery and health impacts are considered. When wildfires become catastrophic, our city and county firefighters are also called into duty – stressing budgets and safe staffing levels.
The question is are we going to pay to react as we deal with smoke and flames, or are we going to be proactive in protecting our firefighters, communities and forests, and strengthening our economies?
This funding source also has a clear nexus to the harm wildfires inflict. When wildfires hit, people lose their homes and vehicles — necessities for living their lives — and there is a big impact on our communities and local economies when smoke forces us indoors or when communities are evacuated.
Never before have we faced a wildfire crisis of this magnitude, and the forecast is bleak. In Washington, some 2.2 million homes are exposed to wildfire risk, and the threat is expected to worsen if we don’t change course. Fortunately, we have the opportunity create a better future.
Let’s once again embrace the proven, unwavering drive of the people of Washington to solve big problems. Let’s solve our wildfire crisis, together, and preserve the splendor of our state for current and future generations.