Wildfires are increasingly part of our experience in Washington state, with smoke choking our lungs and flames damaging our landscapes, homes and vehicles. At one point last summer, wildfire smoke caused Washington to have the worst air quality in the world.
In Spokane, the Air Quality Index reached 382 on Aug. 20, making it one of the five worst cities in the nation for breathing. That’s the equivalent of smoking about 17 cigarettes a day.
We have a wildfire crisis in Washington. The Department of Natural Resources, our state’s wildfire fighting force, responded to 1,850 wildfires last year – the most on record – with 40 percent of them on land west of the Cascades.
This brings home the point that wildfire threatens all of us, east and west, urban and rural.
This year’s wildfire season is already beginning. In March, we saw 54 unseasonal wildfires. A fire in southwest Washington caused the evacuation of 125 homes.
The good news is, if we act now, we can mitigate wildfire risk and fight wildfires more effectively when they do arise.
That’s exactly what a new plan before the state Legislature will do.
Senate Bill 5996 is a bold plan that creates a dedicated funding source – the Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account – and allocates $62.5 million per year to restore the health of our forests and provide the on-the-ground and in-the-air tools necessary to suppress wildfires when they happen.
The plan will allow Washington to build a 21st century wildfire fighting force, with new helicopters, more firefighters and improved training. The goal is to ensure our fire crews – the professional men and women on the ground – have the tools they need to quickly and effectively protect our communities.
The plan also supports community preparation and education through the Firewise program and the Fire Adapted Communities Network, further increasing firefighter success and reducing long-term costs.
This funding will also help us reduce the number and severity of wildfires through better forest health. The dedicated account will fund DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which has the ambitious – but absolutely necessary – goal of restoring the health of 1.25 million acres of diseased and dying forests across Central and Eastern Washington. These unhealthy and weakened forests make it easier for severe wildfires to start and spread.
When we remove dead and dying trees, and use prescribed fire to remove underbrush, we create forests that are strong and healthy and have natural wildfire resistance. The added benefits of this work are that healthier forests are better at cleaning our air and water, provide improved salmon habitat, and are more resistant to disease and insect infestation.
The dollars to pay for these crucial investments will come from a small 0.52% increase in the tax on premiums for property and casualty insurance. On average, households would see an increase of less than $2 per month.
This broad-based approach shares the burden across all of Washington. Wildfire is a collective problem, and it requires a collective solution.
In truth, we’re already paying a staggering amount for wildfires – an average of $153 million per year over the past five years, a number that does not account for the costs of lost economic activity, infrastructure damage, disaster recovery and health impacts.
With healthier forests and additional firefighters and equipment, we will save money by proactively reducing severe wildfires, which are tremendously expensive to suppress and incredibly damaging.
This plan gives us the opportunity to act now to create a better future.
Together, we can proactively tackle our wildfire crisis, protect our families from summers filled with smoke, and preserve our landscapes – the envy of states and countries across the globe – for future generations.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz was elected in 2016, and leads the Department of Natural Resources, our state’s wildfire fighting force.
Suzy Dix is a Spokane-area Realtor and member of The Nature Conservancy’s Leadership Council.
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