By Eli Lehrer and Jeff Kupfer
If nothing else, 2020 showed Washington state residents they can’t stop worrying about wildfires.
The just-ended wildfire season, after all, left over 700,000 burned acres and scorched nearly 200 homes. It’s a sign of things to come: Population growth will put more people in the path of wildfires while climate change will make them more frequent and severe. If Washington state policymakers and citizens want to be ready for next year’s wildfire season, they should improve forest management through controlled burns, strengthen building codes, tie post-disaster aid to predisaster preparedness, and encourage individual property owners to make better choices.
Some background first: In 2018, the most recent year for which we have full information, the federal government spent $3 billion fighting wildfires and nearly nothing on making communities more resilient against them. This is absolutely backward and it’s fiscally irresponsible to boot. When a disaster strikes, mitigation spending saves $6 for every $1 invested in it.
For wildfires, somewhat paradoxically, controlled burns offer a highly effective way to prevent disasters. These intentionally set and carefully controlled fires help rejuvenate forests, prevent much bigger blazes in the future, and, when managed properly, can take place without any threat to the public or firefighters. Indeed, forest health strategies that involve burning can also help eliminate invasive species, protect clean drinking water and preserve essential watersheds. And policymakers in Washington, D.C., have taken note: Washington Senator Maria Cantwell has joined with her colleagues Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) to introduce legislation that would increase the pace and scale of these burns.
Of course, not every mitigation program has to involve wildfires alone. Earlier this year, for example, Congressmen Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) and Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) introduced a proposal to ensure that building codes and standards set by FEMA address resiliency and incorporate risks from climate change.
But these tactical measures are only a start. In the long term, policymakers in Washington, D.C., and Olympia should work to combine disaster assistance with predisaster preparation and provide more assistance to places that prepare better. This would deliver a strong incentive for state and local officials to make good investments now and avoid building in harm’s way.
Federal officials can’t solve every problem, however. States must streamline access to accurate information and educate homeowners and renters about the risks of living in wildfire-prone areas. Florida does an excellent job with hurricane awareness – and Washington state could learn a lot from their example. Sales tax holidays for disaster preparedness supplies, common in hurricane-prone states and worth looking at elsewhere, can also provide an incentive to help people cope with wildfires.
As Washington state continues to cope with the pandemic and the widespread destruction caused by this year’s wildfires, policymakers must begin to plan ahead and work harder to mitigate disasters. The right approach will protect homes, businesses and communities from the risks posed by wildfires, improve the environment and save money.
Eli Lehrer is president of the R Street Institute. Jeff Kupfer is president of ConservAmerica. Both organizations are members of SmarterSafer, a national coalition focused on promoting environmentally responsible, fiscally sound approaches to natural catastrophe policy.
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