By Jack Cates and Dan Holman
Every year that we fail to invest in meaningful wildfire resilience and mitigation treatments leads to increased costs, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent fighting damaging fires, especially in the wildland/urban interface. Every year is another lost opportunity to create new jobs for mitigating hazardous fuels in our state and protect families from the increasingly unpredictable havoc of wildfires as they grow in severity.
We’re writing to urge our community and our legislators to support HB 1168 to enable Washington to address this need. We’re awaiting a vote on the House floor for this legislation.
By midcentury, the Western United States is projected to have two to six times more damaging wildfires. Each year, fighting these fires becomes more expensive – with an average of $150 million spent each year in Washington – and we are facing mounting societal costs from wildfires. In the past decade, more than 1,000 Washington homes have been lost. Smoke has impacted communities for months. Timber and range resource losses are in the tens of millions of dollars. Most tragic, many fatalities have occurred.
Rather than chase the problem, we have the ability to get ahead of it – to reduce hazardous wildfire conditions in our natural landscape and enable our communities to be more “fire ready.” A recent study commissioned by Oregon’s Federal Forest Advisory Committee found that every $1 spent on forest treatments could save state agencies up to $1.45 in firefighting costs and spurs $5.70 of economic activity – directly benefiting the communities most locally impacted.
Wildfire readiness provides opportunities for local business, which means economic growth for our frontline communities. In 2019, two cross-laminated timber facilities opened in Spokane Valley and Colville. These facilities are able to turn small-diameter timber thinned from unhealthy, high fire danger forests into environmentally friendly building materials for our towns and cities, while at the same time mitigating potential impacts of severe wildfire.
Another critical component of building more fire-resilient communities involves readiness for local residents – when a wildfire strikes, do they have a plan and will they be able to recover quickly?
Residents of Flowery Trail, an association of about 50 homes north of Spokane, have taken it upon themselves to make their community as fire resilient as possible. After learning the hard way that they didn’t qualify for assistance from the nearest fire district, they set about a decadelong project to better prepare their entire community for wildfire. They replaced flammable material within five feet of their homes with gravel. They invested in additional water tanks – some of which can be used outside their community in an emergency – and additional fire hydrants, and they upgraded water lines.
Flowery Trail residents have also taken it upon themselves to buy acres of forest surrounding their homes and thin the stands to reduce the risk of severe wildfire, in close coordination with the state Department of Natural Resources . They host an annual spring “work weekend” when the whole community pitches in to improve Flowery Trail’s fire resilience – chipping, burning slash, cutting brush and more. They are also developing a community evacuation plan. Their efforts earned them a “Firewise Community Site of Excellence” award in 2018 – one of only a handful of the more than 15,000 Firewise communities nationally to be honored.
These community efforts are exemplary, helping to show all of us the way to a more resilient future. But local residents shouldn’t be the only ones leading – and efforts like those in Flowery Trail can be expensive.
House Bill 1168, currently before the state Legislature, would support exactly the types of funding needed to get ahead of our severe wildfire problem – preparing communities, championing proven wildfire mitigation treatments, and equipping Washingtonians to be better prepared, and safer, in the future.
It is the responsibility of the Legislature to make sound investments in our communities and our natural landscape and to protect our residents against worsening wildfire danger.
Dan Holman is a member of Flowery Trails Community Association. Fire Chief Jack Cates is a 32-year veteran at Spokane County Fire District #9.
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