With chances high for a difficult wildfire season, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark is still hoping for more fire-fighting money in this year’s budget.
OLYMPIA — As wildfire season begins amid a statewide drought, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark is still hoping for more money in this year’s budget to fight wildfires.
But lawmakers, who are well into a special legislative session to find agreement on a statewide operating budget, are keeping budget details a secret.
Goldmark — a statewide elected official who oversees the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — says he doesn’t know what will happen.
“They listen and they say ‘we understand your concern and we’ll take it into account,’” said Goldmark. But, “In my presence, they don’t make any commitments.”
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In a supplemental budget this year, the single largest chunk of spending dealt with the costs of last year’s fire season — $88 million. The season included the largest wildfire in Washington’s recorded history, the Carlton Complex fire and the destruction of more than 340 homes.
The cost of destroyed properties in Okanogan County alone — where the Carlton Complex burned — is estimated to be more than $28 million.
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An average wildfire season in Washington burns about 70,000 acres; last year, fires scorched more than 350,000 acres.
Goldmark has asked for $4.5 million to add additional engines and crews, as well as attack crews for the agency’s wildfire-fighting helicopters and more training.
In their budget proposals earlier this year, Democrats gave Goldmark a little more than half of what he requested — $2.5 million. And the Republican proposal didn’t give DNR any extra funding, he said.
Goldmark has also asked for a little less than $20 million to use on fire prevention programs; that status of that money is also unclear.
So far this season, 124 wildland fires have been sparked, according to Sandra Kaiser, spokeswoman for the DNR. That is up from 107 at this time last year, according to Kaiser.
The number of large wildfires on federal lands in 11 western states has risen by 79 percent, from about 140 during the 1980s to about 250 in the 2000s, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The western wildfire season has expanded across the calendar since the 1970s, from five months on average then to about seven months currently.
With the American West becoming hotter and drier through climate change, wildfires are expected to become more extensive. Meanwhile, continuing budget crunches in Olympia and Congress continue to present a challenge.
All of which is why Goldmark still hopes for extra funding.
“This,” he said, “is not a big request.”
Information from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.