As fire season brings devastation across Washington, the role of commissioner of public lands has mostly focused on wildfire prevention and fighting.
The two candidates for the position disagree on best practices for each.
Republican Sue Kuehl Pederson will take on incumbent Hilary Franz, Democrat, in the November general election after finishing second in the August primary with about 23% of the vote, behind Franz who received 51%.
Kuehl Pederson said she doesn’t think Franz is doing enough to prevent wildfires and has argued for further managing of forests.
There was a misguided notion that leaving forests alone would create old growth, Kuehl Pederson said. Now forests are not managed well and overgrown, allowing fires to spread quickly throughout them.
“That’s forest mismanagement that has happened,” she said.
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Kuehl Pederson said she would support logging to thin forests and provide more resources to schools and communities, claiming Franz is not doing enough to prevent wildfires now.
She pointed to Franz’s 10-year wildfire strategic plan and 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which will treat 1.2 million acres of forests with prescribed burning and thinning during the next 20 years.
Kuehl Pederson said it is not enough to wait 10 or 20 years.
“I am just frantically imagining how we can improve conditions quickly,” she said. “We don’t have 10 years and 20 years.”
She said she has simple solutions that would be emergency measures. There won’t be any forests to manage in 20 years unless you get a handle on it now, Kuehl Pederson said.
As fires raged across the state the last few weeks, Franz has continued to call for more resources and funding for fire prevention and firefighting services. She called the fires that broke out Labor Day weekend “the most horrific fire situation” during her time as commissioner.
Franz said when she came into office, she partnered with the Legislature to get the proper resources to improve wildfire fighting and prevention, but she said there’s more to be done.
“The fact is that this state needs to recognize that wildfire is one of the most significant things threatening our community,” Franz said. “It’s not only threatening our economy, but it’s threatening lives.”
The Legislature needs to make it a priority, Franz said, and she doesn’t want to have to beg for money every year.
Although she has worked to better the relationship with the federal government in her first term, Franz said the state can’t rely on federal resources as many other states burn at the same time as Washington, which is what she saw this month in California and Oregon.
She said the state needs more air resources, better technology and more firefighters at a local level.
When she took office, Franz said she worked to change how the state fights fires.
The first step is getting planes in the air as soon as there is smoke. The second step is to position equipment in areas that are more prone to fires, so they don’t have to travel long distances while a fire is burning. Finally, Franz said she worked to train local, state and federal firefighters together so they are more effective.
“The first thing was actually ensuring the way we fought fires was done intelligently and efficiently and effectively,” she said.
Kuehl Pederson said a way to improve firefighting techniques could be obtaining planes that hold larger amounts of water. She said she would want to find planes that are currently in surplus that Washington might be able to use during fire season.
She said she got the idea from a citizen who pointed to a surplus of cargo planes in Arizona owned by the Air Force.
A solution like that requires thinking outside the box, Kuehl Pederson said.
“It just frustrates me that people kind of get stuck in their routine,” she said. “When things are not working, you just have to do something different.”
Forest health isn’t the only important prevention tool as many fires start and grow on grasslands, as the state saw across Eastern Washington this past month.
Franz said she is working with the Legislature to build fire breaks in communities that are more susceptible to the grass and brush fires. She has also worked with cattlemen to ensure agricultural land is irrigated.
Kuehl Pederson agreed these areas would benefit from fire breaks. She added that allowing grazing on grasslands, watering lands during a drought and giving homeowners better information about how to prevent fires at their home would also help prevent grassland fires.
When it comes to fire prevention, one of the biggest threats is climate change. Franz pointed to her agency’s climate resiliency plan that looks at specific effects of climate change in Washington and how the department can help fight them.
“We are making sure that the decisions we’re making reflect those impacts so that we are planning and making decisions according to the changes climate is going to have on those landscapes,” Franz said.
Kuehl Pederson said she does not blame fires solely on climate change. While she believes in climate change, she said there are other issues going on that cause these fires. One of them is poor management of lands.
“To blame all this on climate change is not helpful,” she said. “We need to start managing our forests, and then we’ll have the discussions around climate change.”
Other than wildfire prevention, Franz said her focus has been on diversifying the state’s revenue portfolio by finding new ways to generate money from the state’s lands, whether that’s agricultural land, commercial land, clean energy or improving access to broadband internet across the state.
Franz added she wants to continue to grow and expand revenue in a way that not only helps the environment but also grows local and state economies.
Kuehl Pederson said her biggest goal right now is fighting forest fires, as it is the reason she got into the race in the first place.
“I feel this is really the only important thing to be doing right now,” she said.
Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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