Still jolted by back-to-back historically destructive fire seasons, state legislators are considering several bills that aim to bolster Washington’s ability to fight wildfires.
OLYMPIA — Still jolted by back-to-back historically destructive fire seasons, legislators are considering several bills that aim to bolster the state’s ability to fight wildfires.
With a budget unequal to the task, the state Department of Natural Resources had to ask the Legislature for hundreds of millions in additional dollars to cover the cost of battling the massive fires.
“The state has become a fire station,” said Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, who has proposed a new fee on homes in unincorporated areas to pay for fire protection. “The [state] does not have the equipment and resources to deal with these areas.”
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Lytton’s proposal, House Bill 1074, would assess an annual $20 fee on each home in unincorporated land west of the Cascades crest and a $30 fee on unincorporated land east of the Cascades if the land is in a fire-protection district or covered by DNR, the state’s chief firefighting agency.
Lytton says the fee, the first of its kind, is the simplest way to beef up the state’s fire- suppression budget. It could bring in nearly $50 million in the state’s next two-year budget.
A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, would compel the state to stage firefighting resources in anticipation of the wildfire season. Currently, state firefighting equipment can’t be mobilized until all local resources are in use.
Dent’s bill, HB 1019, would require the state to stage bulldozers, fire engines and other equipment in areas where destructive fires are anticipated, so they are nearby if needed.
The bill aims to quickly attack potential blazes like the 2015 Okanogan Complex fire that burned roughly 300,000 acres and forced the evacuations of hundreds of people. Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters died and another was critically injured when their truck went off the road and was overrun by fire while they were trying to escape the fast-moving flames near Twisp.
A third proposal, filed by Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, would require DNR to recruit contract firefighters and equipment year-round in anticipation of wildfire season.
Kretz called the 2015 wildfire response “unbelievably disorganized” for the length of time it took to get enough firefighters on the scene. He said his bill, HB 1489, would increase the number of available firefighters and equipment that could be called in to help.
However, DNR spokesman Joe Smilie said the department already accomplishes much of what Kretz wants by maintaining a “call-when-needed” list and conducting yearly outreach for contractors.
Legislation approved in 2015 allows volunteers to join firefighting efforts once they pass state-approved safety courses. But needed firefighting equipment is expensive, sometimes running into the thousands of dollars. Volunteers often have to provide their own equipment.
A bill by Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, would require the Department of Natural Resources to compile and maintain a list of volunteers and provide them with the proper equipment and training.
Becker said Senate Bill 5199 would ultimately reduce costs by allowing DNR to respond more quickly and with more people to wildfires.
But Kevin Curfman, the president of the Washington Contract Firefighters Association, said recruiting more volunteers may mean the state would bypass experienced paid contractors.
“There is an industry here set up for this, with the right equipment and training,” Curfman said.
Smilie also raised questions about Becker’s bill.
“We feel it best volunteers sign up through their local fire districts, who can provide equipment, tools and training and need the additional help keeping their communities safe year-round,” he said.
Becker disagreed that her bill would harm the local firefighting contractor community, and emphasized that her bill is a cost-saving measure. “The last thing I want is a war over who gets to do what while our forests burn,” Becker said.