Modern Washington summers are rarely spared a painful surge of wildfires on both sides of the Cascade Mountains. The escalating toll has scorched communities and cloaked vast areas with so much smoke that even venturing outside is a health risk. Every fire-reduction method in the state’s arsenal must be deployed against this perennial menace.
Fire season stretches from March to October now, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Over the last five years, Washington has spent an annual average of $150 million on fighting wildfires with mostly Vietnam-era helicopters and firefighter crews, imported from elsewhere, stretched to capacity. Last year, Washington’s crew needs went wanting as California and Oregon blazed.
The state paying these astounding firefighting bills as they come in is not making a dent in minimizing the loss. In 2020, more than 812,000 acres burned, bringing the five-year average destruction up to 488,000 acres. That’s more than five times the average annual burned acreage from the 1990s, and more than double that of the 2000s.
Smart, decisive investment is needed. The Legislature should approve Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz’s logical strategy to reverse the trend and keep our state’s people, habitat and property safer. Her plan, contained in House Bill 1168 by Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and others, would step up investments in making Washington more wildfire resistant. It would also expand firefighting resources to help stop forest fires in time to minimize devastation, and reduce the high costs of importing help from other states and nations.
The bill prescribes a pricey plan: $125 million over the next two years, and nearly $90 million in the two-year state budgets after that. Initial funding would be parceled out as $71 million for firefighting resources, $34 million to improve fire-susceptible forests and $20 million to cut fire risk in the expanding juxtaposition of urban areas and forests.
That’s a prudent investment if it can reduce the devastation from fires. The firefighting expense is only about 9% of the full cost of wildfires. The destruction of homes and businesses, public-health impacts and other disruptions to residents’ lives amount to a staggering fiscal loss.
The November 2018 California fire that all but wiped away Paradise, California, killed at least 85 people. A newspaper investigation found dozens more may have died from it. It did $16.5 billion worth of damage. Similar danger exists here. Three Washington places — Roslyn and Leavenworth in the North Cascades and tiny Twin Lakes in Ferry County — are more vulnerable than Paradise, DNR officials said in January.
Gov. Jay Inslee and legislative leaders should ensure that HB 1168 is passed and funded to save more Washington towns from the kind of devastating fire that leveled Malden in last fall’s Labor Day outbreaks. Inslee called them “climate fires” after Malden burned. He should get staunchly behind HB 1168 to confront this aspect of the existential threat he has long warned about.
In the previous two legislative sessions, Franz sought to get a fire-safety program funded through insurance taxes and policy surcharges. Insurers pushed back, and the requests stalled. This year, Franz is wisely asking lawmakers to commit to a fire strategy by passing HB 1168, and separately negotiate an equitable way to pay for it.
The Legislature should seek a mix of funding sources for HB 1168, such as a dedicated fund from a tax or fee, plus an appropriation from the state’s general fund. A dedicated source would guarantee a sustainable program. Legislative control over the rest of the funding would create oversight and accountability. Wildfires imperil homes, lungs and lives across the West.
Millions of Washington residents deserve better protection from an entirely predictable problem. The Legislature should enact HB 1168.