For the state’s Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, the smoky air that continues to choke the Inland Northwest each summer is a sign that Washington will have to battle wildfires independently in the future.
“We tried to find additional air support outside,” Franz said in an interview this week, after a 2018 wildfire season that resulted in more than 1,850 blazes in Washington, the most in the state’s history. “We used everything we had up in Washington state, and we went outside. And because of California, Colorado, Oregon and other states already on fire, they had already grabbed everything that was available.”
That’s why Franz is asking the state Legislature, as part of its 2019 budget, to dedicate $55 million to beef up the Department of Natural Resource’s fire response team and fund programs to thin timber most susceptible to scorching. It’s the most the agency says it has ever requested to fight fires, and would represent a doubling of the state’s investment in fire suppression from previous budget cycles.
Franz, who is entering her third year as the elected head of the department and caretaker of millions of acres of public lands in Washington, said the request is a good investment, as the state has seen the costs of battling blazes rise due to stretched resources and more widespread fires that now reach west of the Cascades.
“It’s sort of that context that, money up front is a lot less than paying for it on the back end,” she said. “A 50,000-acre fire is a lot more costly to suppress than a 100-acre fire.”
Franz said state officials did a good job in 2018 of limiting fire spread, despite the record-setting number of fire starts. While there were 1,850 fire starts this year reported, those flames burned 350,000 acres. Compare that to the fire season of 2015, when there were fewer blazes but, spurred by the massive Okanogan Complex fire in north-central Washington, more than a million acres burned and a federal state of emergency was declared.
Fighting those fires, even if they’re smaller in size, can still prove expensive.
Franz said just one fire alone in the Twisp area this summer cost $60 million in state resources to fight. The money she’s requesting would provide funding to hire an additional 30 full-time firefighters for the department, add two firefighting helicopters to the agency’s fleet of seven and a dedicated $17 million to pay for forestry health projects identified in a plan calling for thinning in the portions of eastern and central Washington identified as high risk for wildfires.
The request comes as the state Legislature begins another potentially lengthy budget process in this session, with lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee tackling several environmental and social services issues after spending the previous budget cycle in talks over education funding. A poll of 502 registered voters in Washington state conducted by the Elway Research firm and Crosscut at the end of December found there was significant support for the Legislature to address wildfires, but not as much support as “fixing the state’s mental health system.”
“We know that throughout Washington state, we are facing enormous challenges that are very costly,” Franz said. “We’ve got education, we’ve got mental health, we’ve got affordable housing, we’ve got infrastructure. All of those are competing needs, and they’re significant needs.”
“What people may not be aware of is how much it actually costs us to fight fires,” she continued, saying the state spends upwards of $150 million a year fighting fires, far exceeding her budget request. The state has also developed a 20-year plan for portions of the state east of the Cascades that calls for the treatment of 1.25 million acres of forestland that has been prioritized based on proximity to population centers.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, the Spokane Democrat who chairs the state House of Representative’s Appropriations Committee, said it’s still too early to say for certain how much of Franz’s request could be included in the state’s budget. But, he said, Franz – who is also a Democrat – has earned high marks from state lawmakers and local fire officials for her responsiveness to their concerns.
“This one is a big one because it’s so obvious,” Ormsby said, referring to the wildfire efforts. “You can see the fires and smell the smoke … I can’t tell you how that translates into policy and budgets.”
Sen. Mark Schoesller, the Ritzville Republican who is leading the minority party in the Senate, said he hadn’t yet reviewed the full budget request from the department, though he noted it was “a really big total.”
“I think we should take a hard look at it,” Schoesler said, noting that Gov. Jay Inslee is keenly interested in the reduction of carbon emissions and that fighting widespread wildfires could further that goal while also improving rural economies.
While the Department of Natural Resources requires millions of dollars from the legislature to fight fires and administer other programs to protect fish populations and promote waterway health, it also generates about $325 million in revenue through timber sales and land leases, Franz said. The department has been looking at ways to spend that money that will reduce government waste, she said, including the re-opening of timber mills that can handle specific types of lumber and opening a new facility in Grays Harbor that can process salvage of derelict vessels that must be towed from waters along the coastlines, injecting some money back into the state’s coffers after the expensive removal of the ships.
Those ideas were generated locally, Franz said.
“We don’t pretend to know the answers,” Franz said. “We believe you know your community best, bring us your best ideas.”
The entirety of the interview with Franz can be heard as part of the Spokesman-Review’s Newsmakers podcast. All episodes are available at spokesman.com/podcasts.
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