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Sue Lani Madsen: Rangeland fire protection associations should be created in Washington

Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

What do you get when a state bureaucrat, two ranchers and a pair of environmentalists walk into an Olympia hearing room? Sometimes, a consensus for policy change.

Unfortunately, the governor’s focus is heavy on social services and climate change, and a little light on natural resources this year. Perhaps he’s forgotten how miserable he and his neighbors on Bainbridge Island were when they couldn’t breathe from the wildfire smoke last August.

The Commissioner of Public Lands wants HB 1188 to pass. It’s a small but critical piece of Commissioner Hilary Franz’s 10-year strategy for greater efficiency and effectiveness in wildfire suppression, reducing carbon emissions, conserving critical wildlife habitat and protecting the livelihood of ranchers. Conservation Northwest, the Washington State Farm Bureau, the Washington Cattlemens Association and the Audubon Society have all testified in favor, citing numerous benefits.

HB 1188 changes statutes to support formation of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. RFPAs provide swift initial fire response using local volunteer resources, and have operated effectively in Oregon and Idaho since 1963.

It’s a proven concept, has the potential to save the state millions of dollars, and is currently stalled in the Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

RFPA’s were first proposed after a disastrous 2017 range fire in Douglas and Grant counties burned critical shrub steppe habitat and private grazing land. The 2018 Legislature asked for more study and the Department of Natural Resource’s preliminary “10-Year Wildland Fire Strategic Plan” was submitted to the Legislature in December 2018. Establishing RFPAs is listed as one of the solutions to protecting open lands currently outside of existing fire districts or DNR protection.

The House Committee on Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources voted HB 1188 out of committee with a unanimous, bi-partisan Do Pass recommendation. “It’s a good deal for the state. This is an opportunity for greater safety and strategic partnerships,” according to Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake. Dent has been the pilot guiding the Wildfire Caucus in the House, looking for better ways to prevent, reduce and fight wildfire.

Dent is disappointed in the pushback from the Washington State Council of Firefighters, most closely tied to the interests of full-time urban departments. Bud Sizemore, representing the Council, testified in opposition to HB 1188, citing concerns over citizen safety and distribution of scarce resources. Dent doesn’t buy it. “It’s all chest bumping,” said Dent. “They’re missing the boat. They say they don’t want (volunteers) to get hurt, but that’s what the training is for and they’ll be there anyway.”

Safety is why DNR would rather work with a rural fire protection district or an RFPA instead of an ad hoc posse of neighbors fighting fire in their own pastures and barnyards. “Safety is paramount for firefighters and the public,” according to Loren Torgerson, Wildfire Policy Advisor to the Commissioner for Public Lands. It’s why HB 1188 requires Wildland 2 level training for RFPA members. Training and common radio frequencies make a huge difference in safety when smoke obscures the sagebrush. “When we’re interacting [on the fireground] it’s critical to have good communications,” said Torgerson.

RFPA members would pay their startup costs, including training, liability insurance and equipment. The fiscal note for the bill estimates DNR’s additional workload at less than one full time equivalent administrative staff position. Conservatively, the fiscal note adds a couple hundred thousand and projects a total of $234,700 in potential cost to the state general fund.

The state spent $2,094,000 to fight the 2017 Sutherland Canyon fire in Douglas County after a lightning strike. One Sutherland Canyon averted in a decade and the RFPA concept pays for itself. Having organized, trained and equipped local citizen/volunteers ready to make an initial attack is a force multiplier for DNR. When reached for comment, Ormsby speculated HB 1188 simply got lost in the shuffle at the end of session but he’d take another look at it. “Getting everyone talking on the same radio frequency sounds like a good idea,” agreed Ormsby.

Even better if Governor Inslee could get on the same frequency as DNR.

“It’s extraordinarily frustrating that the governor doesn’t want to deal with wildfire in this budget,” said Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy. Up to 50 percent of Washington’s total carbon emissions per year are from wildfire smoke, according to emissions modeling by the Tacoma-based Forest Foundation. Surely a modicum of money in his $273,476,000 request to combat climate change could go to cleaner air in August.