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Wednesday, May 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Coordinated public, private fire response would address system’s gaps

With memories of last year’s devastating Carlton Complex fires still fresh, and the litigation against the state still fresher, legislation that would address some of the breakdowns in firefighting has cleared the Washington House of Representatives with unanimous support.

Quick Senate approval should be next.

How and where the Department of Natural Resources might have acted more swiftly to squelch small fires that converged into a 387,000-acre monster may or may not be resolved in court. Record heat and low humidity had created ideal conditions for fires. Lightning strikes provided the match, and high winds the blower.

Even a perfect response is unlikely to have suppressed every flame. The state response was far from perfect.

Private landowners who might have attacked small fires early were waved off, access to some properties where the flames were advancing was denied, and communications were inadequate, in part because cell towers were among the structures destroyed.

House Bill 2093 would help correct these problems, starting with the designation of a local fire liaison who would report to the Commissioner of State Lands on private landowner and public concerns during firefighting efforts. By the end of this year, he or she must make recommendations for better training, creating inventories of firefighting equipment and contractors, assuring the equipment meets department standards, and entering agreements for its deployment in case of fire.

Individuals could access private or state property without permission if, in their reasonable judgment, there is imminent danger from fire. They would have to notify the landowner and emergency responders as soon as possible, and stand down if told to do so when firefighters arrive.

Neither the individual nor landowner would be liable for their efforts unless they were grossly negligent. Nor would DNR be liable for “adverse impacts” from its training or pre-emptive agreements unless it was negligent.

The proposed law does specifically prohibit setting a fire, using aircraft to fight a fire, or directing others to fight fires. There were at least three arrests of individuals whose attempts at back burns expanded the fire, and one almost trapped a group of firefighters.

And, finally, a Wildland Fire Advisory Committee with landowners and federal, state, local and tribal officials to advise the lands commissioner on wildland firefighting would be created.

There may not be another Carlton-scale fire this year, or next year, but there will be another. Fires all over the West have become bigger and more intense in recent years. Firefighting budgets have not kept pace: The Legislature had to approve an $88 million supplemental appropriation to cover Carlton-related expenditures.

Coordinating public-private responses to emergencies is a logical force-multiplier as people and equipment are spread ever thinner. As long as safety is not compromised, HB 2093 deserves Senate approval and the governor’s signature.

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