Washington’s wildfire seasons have become longer and more destructive in recent years. Yet in shortsighted fashion, the state has failed to invest in boosting its firefighting capacity so crews can respond more quickly.
State Sen. Brad Hawkins counted four fires burning in his Central Washington district as of Friday.
He and his constituents have grown increasingly accustomed to skies thick with smoke. And Hawkins, a Republican from East Wenatchee, thinks the Legislature needs to do more about it.
“We probably shouldn’t even refer to it as a fire season anymore — we should call it a fire year,” he said, noting that lately, some fires aren’t extinguished until the first snowfall.
He is right. Washington’s wildfire seasons have become progressively longer and more destructive in recent years. But in the past decade, the state has irresponsibly ignored the trend, failing to invest in boosting the state Department of Natural Resources’ firefighting capacity so crews can respond more quickly. These kinds of year-round investments in staff and equipment can help keep small fires from raging out of control.
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The Legislature’s shortsighted thinking must change.
In 2017, Washington lawmakers actually budgeted fewer dollars for fire-control measures than they did a decade earlier. The state contributed $4.6 million in 2017, down from $5.8 million in 2007.
Fees charged to private landowners helped make up the difference. But the state’s total annual resources for fire control — $17.8 million, including federal dollars — still grew by only $2.3 million over the course of the decade.
Meanwhile, Washington suffered through record-setting wildfire years in 2014 and 2015. Even the less destructive 2017 fire season still burned 140,000 acres more than the previous 10-year average.
This cycle not only destroys property and risks lives — it’s one Washington state cannot afford to continue. The runaway fires are causing the Legislature to rack up larger and larger firefighting bills that must be paid after the flames have subsided, hurting the state’s bottom line.
The state overspent its budget for seasonal, on-the-ground firefighting costs — including crew overtime — by an average of $27 million annually between 2008 and 2017. Costs from the 2015 wildfire season alone topped $130 million.
Cutting down on tomorrow’s bills by setting up a stronger network of firefighting crews today makes good financial sense.
Lawmakers should also consider spending more to make forests healthier and less likely to burn. The state estimates there are 2.7 million acres of forests in Washington state that need forest health treatments, such as thinning, to prevent wildfires from spreading and morphing into out-of-control infernos.
In January, the Legislature approved $13 million in capital funding for this purpose. Yet that money will treat only about 30,000 acres, barely a dent in the need.
More money to thin crowded forests would be money well spent. In a 2012 assessment, Oregon’s Federal Forest Advisory Committee found that every $1 spent on forest treatments potentially saves the government $1.45 in fire suppression costs.
That’s not counting money saved by avoiding the destruction of buildings, wildlife habitat and valuable timber.
State Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, a Democrat who leads DNR, is working on a budget request that would shift 30 fire crew leaders from seasonal employment to full-time positions. Her idea: When those firefighters aren’t putting out flames, they could help carry out much-needed forest health treatments.
Her agency estimates the ongoing cost would be about $5 million annually, some of which could be recouped by selling timber from thinning operations. Better control of the fires, she hopes, will also save money to offset the cost.
Given that the state’s cost overruns from fighting fires average more than five times what Franz is proposing to spend on prevention, her idea is worthy. The Legislature should take it up when they convene in January.
The Legislature’s responsibility cannot end with simply cutting checks to pay for fires after the fact. Lawmakers must also work not only harder but smarter to prevent these destructive blazes from occurring in the first place.