RAINIER, Thurston County — Standing on federal land, on a border of where prairie meets forest, a line of a dozen or so wildland firefighters hacked at the earth with shovels and hoes, overturning a yard-wide band of soil.
They came from Skykomish and Port Ludlow, Everett and Longview, local fire districts and the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Natural Resources and the National Guard. In all, about 440 firefighters from more than 50 departments and agencies came for a 10-day academy to learn the basics of fighting wildfires.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) runs three such interagency wildfire academies each year, training more than 1,000 firefighters to help fight the more than 1,500 wildfires that Washington sees annually.
“It really is about two things, one, making sure everyone has adequate and critical training no matter who they work for and, two, building that coordinated team so we’re more collaborative and communicating before fire season starts,” said state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who runs DNR.
Franz, a Democrat elected in 2016, has spent a large chunk of her time in office focused on fires — preventing them and putting them out in the face of ever warmer temperatures and what she calls a forest health crisis.
An environmental lawyer and former director of the sustainable-land use nonprofit Futurewise, Franz, 49, is considering a run for governor in 2020. She was elected state lands commissioner with 53% of the vote, while losing every county outside the Puget Sound region.
But since taking office she’s earned high marks from both her liberal Seattle-area political base and from conservative officials and lawmakers in Eastern Washington, who have praised her willingness to listen to local concerns and the energy she’s brought to fire prevention and rural economic development.
She secured about $50 million from the Legislature this year to hire more full-time firefighters, proactively treat forests and acquire two helicopters to add to its Vietnam-era fleet. Franz also wants to bump the number of firefighter-training academies it runs each year to five and hire a permanent group of instructors.
But while Franz looks to overhaul the state’s approach to fighting fires, her flagship proposal to secure a permanent funding source for firefighting fizzled in Olympia.
Franz, who had no wildfire-fighting experience before taking office, now expounds at length on the topic — the virtues of prescribed burns, the strategy involved in prepositioning helicopters, the drawbacks of the state’s “militia model” of firefighting.
“When I came into office, it was on the heels of the most catastrophic wildfires we’ve ever seen in Washington state,” she said. “It was clear that the No. 1 thing I needed to do was quickly make sure this agency and our state was set up to respond to these catastrophic fires.”
More controlled burns
Franz is quick to rattle off stats detailing the challenge of preventing catastrophic wildfires: Washington has 2.7 million acres of forest dying because of disease and insect infestation. We’ve already had more than 600 fires this year; 90% are caused by humans.
The DNR treated (by thinning brush, trimming branches and removing dying trees) 35,000 acres of forest last year. It plans to treat 50,000 acres this year, and 70,000 acres a year in the foreseeable future.
Franz’s knowledge has impressed legislators whose districts are most vulnerable to wildfires, even if they’re not natural political allies.
Shortly after he was elected in 2014, state Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, prepared a report, “Wildfire in Washington” that delved into such issues as how Spain uses aircraft to fight fires and the benefits of logging burnt timber. The report circulated through wildfire circles, but remained fairly obscure.
Before the 2016 election, Dent and Franz met at a fire-prevention event in his district, near Roslyn, Kittitas County. A conservative Republican, Dent supported Franz’s opponent.
“But she came up to me and introduced herself and said she wanted to sit down and have coffee and talk,” Dent said. They talked for more than two hours. She’d read his report.
“She asked a zillion questions and actually listened to the answers, she wasn’t just asking questions to look good,” Dent said.
Since then, they’ve worked to get DNR to conduct more controlled burns — a way to clear brush and undergrowth to prevent catastrophic fires — and to promote cross-laminated timber, a newer product made from smaller trees, and a possible new revenue source for DNR.
“I didn’t support her back then,” Dent said. “But I didn’t know her then.”
About half of DNR’s 1,600 employees are trained to drop their day jobs, as needed, to fight fires — the so-called “militia model.” But, with more and more fires, that becomes less and less tenable. DNR will tap its $50 million funding boost to hire 30 full-time firefighters, who will spend the colder, slower seasons treating forestland to make it less susceptible to big fires.
Franz will have to return to Olympia in future years to secure funding again, as her proposal to tax property and insurance sales to create a permanent revenue source for wildfires and forest health went nowhere. It was shot down, her spokesman said, because “the insurance industry threw its full weight against the bill.”
Franz has gone to great lengths to try to raise fire awareness. She donned a flight suit for a choreographed number with Smokey Bear, boogieing to Panic! At The Disco in front of a DNR helicopter before delivering an earnest plea to “be one less spark” this summer.
“What I’ve observed is a tremendous amount of more energy from the agency and a lot more proactive posture,” state Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, said. “She’s been very authentic with me and I certainly appreciate that. We’ve just had a really good working relationship.”
Putting DNR land to work
Firefighting is the DNR’s flashiest job. It is not its only job. It runs the Washington Geological Survey, mapping and analyzing volcanoes, hillsides and fault lines for potential hazards.
The agency manages 5.6 million acres of public land in all 39 counties, from mountains to coastline, wheat fields to vineyards, raising revenue that mostly goes to school construction.
With such broad land holdings, Franz has sought to use the agency as an engine for economic development. She launched a rural communities partnership, seeking proposals from small communities for how DNR resources could best benefit them.
The DNR leases its land to farmers and vintners and also to wind farms, and, soon, solar farms.
This spring, the agency signed its first lease with a solar power project, getting $300 an acre for 480 acres of land that DNR said it had been leasing for grazing at $2 an acre. Franz says they’re preparing to offer 33 more leases and hope to have 500 megawatts — a little smaller than a typical coal plant — of solar power on state-owned land by 2025.
“You might say, ‘Well, is clean energy, Hilary, really part of your job?’ ” Franz said. “Well, not necessarily, but my job is to generate revenue from our lands to fund our schools and our counties and we have thousands of acres of land not generating any revenue.”
In the Tri-Cities area, Mayor Brent Gerry, of West Richland, credits Franz with leasing a 110-acre DNR property, that had nothing but sagebrush, for new vineyards.
“She’s a real boots on the ground individual that wanted to make sure she was utilizing the best interest of DNR properties,” Gerry said.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said Franz has been involved in trying to find DNR land in the Seattle area that can be used for affordable-housing projects.
“I’ve just been very taken with her energy level and her positive outlook,” said Chopp, who endorsed Franz in 2016. “Her predecessors, we didn’t have that kind of working relationship with, we worked with them on traditional DNR things. Hilary has done that as well but also expanded it.”
For now, Franz is one of a number of state officials looking to run for higher office, but waiting first to see how the presidential campaign of Gov. Jay Inslee pans out. Chopp declined to comment on a potential Franz gubernatorial campaign.
So did Dent.
“We do not agree on everything,” he said. “She won’t be lands commissioner forever, but I hope she remains lands commissioner for now. I really do.”