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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington public lands commissioner pitching new home, auto insurance charge to pay for wildfire efforts

Wildfire smoke is seen leaving West Sprague in a haze in this photo taken Aug. 5, 2019. The state’s Department of Natural Resources is proposing a new $5 surcharge on home and auto insurance policies that would be used toward preparing for and preventing future wildfires. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington residents would be asked to pay an additional $5 surcharge on home and auto insurance policies to combat the growing threat of wildfires, under a proposed bill by Hilary Franz.

The bill, which is anticipated to raise $63 million annually, is intended to provide the Department of Natural Resources with guaranteed funding to hire more firefighters, update dated technology used in battling large blazes and provide rural, at-risk communities with assistance to prevent spreading fires, Franz said in an interview last week.

“Every year, we go in and we beg for dollars for wildfire suppression and forest health,” Franz said. “We cannot set this state up to be successful until we truly start investing in the problem.”

The proposed legislation, which has attracted Democratic sponsors in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, would take effect in 2021. Insurance companies would be required to charge the additional $5 to ratepayers, with the money being deposited into a dedicated account that legislators would then be able to spend on firefighter salaries, equipment and projects to reduce diseased and insect-infested timber on state land and supporting those efforts on private property.

The goal is to reduce the amount the state has had to pay in putting out fires over the past five years, including the $343 million spent in 2015, when more than a million acres burned, a third of that from a complex wildfire near Twisp that killed three firefighters.

“It’s been 25 to 50 years that this problem has been in the making,” Franz said. “We cannot get ourselves out of this problem overnight.”

A state-authored wildfire preparedness plan, which would guide government spending, calls for the immediate hiring of an additional 42 full-time firefighters, the purchase of 15 new fire trucks and a new helicopter, as well as $1.9 million dedicated to firefighter training.

Additional firefighters will help boost staffing levels throughout the year and keep the focus during the off-season on forest health measures, said Randy Johnson, chief of Spokane Fire District No. 4 in the northern reaches of Spokane County, including Deer Park and Chattaroy.

“They would be in the communities and be involved ahead of time on the forest health side of things,” Johnson said.

Franz said the insurance surcharge approach ensured the cost of paying for suppression and prevention of wildfires, which have consumed more than 2 million acres across Washington since 2014, would be spread evenly and be paid for by property owners at-risk from wildfire damage. A U.S. Forest Service study last year found 2.2 million homes in Washington were at risk of wildfire damage.

“We believe there is a clear nexus between protecting your home and your cars from wildfires,” Franz said. The approach would be the first of its kind in the country, as other states with dedicated wildfire accounts use different funding approaches for raising the money.

A typical household with two insured vehicles would pay an additional $15 per year, or about $1 a month, on top of existing insurance charges, Franz said.

The idea was proposed in legislation in the Washington Legislature last summer, where it died in committee. State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said there was some concern among lawmakers who focus on insurance payments and what they’re used for.

“It kind of ran into a brick wall,” said Ormsby, who heads the House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee.

That bill increased the amount insurance companies were taxed on premium payments. The new bill separates the surcharge payments from premiums in insurers’ calculations of the amount due to the state.

Still, insurance companies raised concerns this summer about increased payments for the consumer, and that the tax already collected from insurance companies could instead be used for wildfire suppression programs.

Johnson said it might make sense for insurance companies to partner with the government on fire prevention efforts, as they’re responsible for paying claims after a large-scale fire destroys property.

“If we keep applying the same fixes to these new problems, we’re probably missing something,” Johnson said.

Franz said she hoped lawmakers would see the need for a dedicated firefighting account in the gathering smoke that is now choking not just Eastern Washington but the large population centers west of the Cascades.

Ormsby said there was growing understanding in the Legislature that more prevention is necessary, but in order to support the bill, lawmakers will need to see a clear path between the funding and what it’s being used for. Those efforts have improved in the Department of Natural Resources leadership over the past several years, he said.

“We just want to make sure we know what we’re paying for, and it is the best use of our money and fire service resources,” Ormsby said.

Franz is scheduled to unveil the proposal at a news conference in Tumwater on Monday morning. The Washington legislative session begins Jan. 14.