As Washington burns, Congress and the state Legislature must shift their thinking on firefighting funds and methods.

Share story

THIS month, Washington residents are witnessing the wrenching consequences of dry conditions and woefully limited firefighting resources.

At least a dozen blazes throughout North Central Washington have torched several hundred thousand acres, destroyed hundreds of homes, and endangered many lives.

The breathtaking destruction might have been less had Congress and the Washington Legislature acted sooner to implement newer thinking and better practices for wildland firefighting.

Both governing bodies must shift their approaches.

On Thursday, U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., heard testimony from several invited wildfire experts at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee field hearing in Seattle. The ranking member and chair of the committee pledged bipartisan support for a series of measures proven to prevent and control the spread of fires.

Cantwell and Barrasso must convince their colleagues to enact several policy changes in the next Wildfire Management Act, including:

• Reforming the federal budget by ending the common practice of raiding or borrowing from other U.S. Forest Service money pots, including its fire-prevention budget, to pay firefighting expenses.

• Encouraging community planning and smarter home development in and around areas susceptible to wildfires.

• Managing forests with more controlled burns and by clearing logging debris and other vegetation that can fuel fires.

According to Seattle Times news reports, state legislators opted earlier this year to provide some funding to fight fires and better manage forests. But it was far less than the state Department of Natural Resources’ initial request. State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said the state typically will make up the costs of unbudgeted firefighting expenses in the supplemental budget.

That wait-and-pay-later approach misses the point — and invites more devastation.

Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, one of the experts at the field hearing, implored lawmakers at the federal and local levels to find the money upfront to build “capacity,” meaning more staff, training and equipment.

He didn’t need to warn elected officials of the potential dangers of underinvestment.

Thousands of state and out-of-state firefighters are working exhaustively to contain the largest wildfires in state history. Three men have died in the line of duty.

Paying millions upfront could save billions — and countless properties, natural habitat and perhaps lives — later.

Lawmakers should adopt this approach.