Budget constraints on the state and federal level are hampering efforts to fight and prevent wildfires, some officials say.

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Well before the latest round of wildfires scorched Eastern Washington, state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark urged the Legislature to boost the budget for firefighting crews and fire prevention.

After last year’s record-setting Carlton complex fire, Goldmark thought his budget case was self-evident. As further motivation, by the time lawmakers were finishing budget talks, this summer’s fire season already had flared, burning dozens of homes in the Wenatchee area.

But when the Legislature adjourned last month, its final two-year budget deal substantially shorted Goldmark’s request.

Lawmakers approved $1.2 million of the $4.5 million increase Goldmark sought to buy 10 new fire engines and hire crews. They provided half the $20 million he’d sought for forest-health programs, such as thinning trees and removing dried branches.

“I’m disappointed in their lack of understanding that public safety is a big issue,” Goldmark, a Democratic statewide elected official who runs the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said in an interview. “We’re doing our best with the scarce resources.”

Worries about budget constraints on wildfire response and prevention are not unique to Washington state. As the American West endures increasingly harsh summer fire seasons, a growing share of the U.S. Forest Service budget has been swallowed by firefighting expenses.

Wildfire coverage

Wildfire growth
Twisp fire
Volunteers

In 2015, for the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, those costs will consume more than half the agency’s budget, according to a report released this month. If the trend continues, two-thirds of the Forest Service budget will be spent on fires by 2025.

But in what critics say is a self-defeating cycle, the increase in the firefighting budget has come at the expense of watershed and vegetation-management programs that could help prevent or lessen the impact of big fires. Such programs have been cut by 24 percent since 2001, the agency’s report said.

“Fire borrowing”

For six of the last 10 years, the Forest Service has blown through its firefighting-budget allotment, forcing it to make up the difference by raiding other programs — a practice known as “fire borrowing.”

A bipartisan group of congressional representatives in Western states is pushing to end that practice. They’ve backed proposals that would allow the costs of major fires to be covered by a disaster-funding account separate from the Forest Service’s regular budget — similar to how the federal government handles other major natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.

U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, backed one version that passed the House this year. In addition to the budgeting change, that bill contained a more controversial provision to hasten salvage-logging projects.

Reichert, who spent much of last week viewing the firefighting efforts in the state, said the practice of raiding prevention money to pay for firefighting makes no sense.

“Now you’re in this vicious cycle. ‘I spent the money so I can’t manage the forests, now we have another forest fire,’ ” Reichert said.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell has co-sponsored a Senate proposal in support of the firefighting-budget changes. She also plans to introduce her own legislation that would fund more controlled burns and clearing of logging debris and brush that can fuel fires, and require federal agencies to establish better guidelines on which wildfires must be fought.

In Seattle this week, Cantwell plans to host a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, of which she’s the ranking Democratic member. Some of the firefighting and budget issues will be discussed.

Federal and state officials have insisted the budget constraints would not stop firefighters from doing all they can to put out the fires that have grown to more than 500,000 acres in Washington.

 

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As in previous years, the fire crews on the ground will do whatever work is needed and send the bills to the state and federal government later.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said “in no case will our response be hampered by inadequate funding.” When the Legislature meets in January it will write a supplemental budget to account for the increased firefighting costs, she noted.

At a news conference in Chelan last week, Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell said fire budget constraints are “an important issue, long term.” But he said that won’t hamper efforts on the ground.

“We’re going to do what we have to do with every one of these fires,” he said.

Political wrangling

In the Legislature this year, Democrats pointed out they had to fight Republicans for the additional firefighting funding.

Democratic budget writers proposed to fund half the $4.5 million Goldmark sought for additional fire crews. The initial Senate Republican budget provided no additional money.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the chief budget writer for House Democrats, pointed to Republicans’ refusal to consider more tax increases. “They weren’t willing to actually raise revenue to support fundamental operations of the state,” he said.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, the chief Senate Republican budget writer, said firefighting costs vary so legislators have typically funded a “baseline” level, then covered any unanticipated costs retroactively in a supplemental budget. This year, legislators approved more than $70 million to cover the costs of last year’s fires.

By the time lawmakers finished their work this year, Hill added, it was questionable whether any additional money would have arrived in time for DNR to staff up for this year’s fires.

Both Hill and Hunter said they agreed to provide some additional funding for helicopter strike crews, which can swoop in and control some small, remote fires before they grow.

Some rural Republicans have expressed dismay over the fire budget.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said Goldmark’s budget requests were reasonable and could have started to make a dent in long-neglected forest-health issues.

“I was unhappy that we didn’t get more than that,” said Kretz, whose district includes the fire-stricken Omak area. “It doesn’t seem that the urban legislators are making a connection between what’s happening over here and forest health.”

Goldmark said the damage from this year’s fires will give him more evidence to bring back to lawmakers next year.

“I’ll do everything I can to bring the enormity of the damage and the destruction and the economic impact in those communities to the legislative hearing rooms,” he said.