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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Franz announces proposed legislation for wildfire fighting, prevention

Flames from the Cold Springs Canyon Pearl Hill fire burn toward Wells Dam on Sept. 7 near Azwell, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

OLYMPIA – After a season when 800,000 acres of land burned in more than 1,600 fires, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is again hoping to create a new funding source to prevent wildfires in new legislation introduced Tuesday.

The legislation would create a funding source of $125 million each biennium dedicated to wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience. It’s similar to legislation Franz has pushed in the past, but after a fire season as devastating as this last one, she has hope that this is the year for it to pass.

“For years, we’ve relied on luck and hope instead of funding,” Franz said in a news conference.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, would allocate:

  • $75.2 million toward wildfire response, including expanding and modernizing wildfire fighting forces
  • $31.4 million to forest restoration, which would fund the Forest Health Strategic Plan and help local fire districts
  • $5.9 million to workforce development to provide career pathways for foresters, firefighters and mill workers
  • $12.6 million to building community resilience, including building fuel breaks and creating prescribed burns

The biggest question that legislators will face is where to get the money, especially given the Legislature’s priorities to fund the state’s COVID response and economic recovery programs. Springer said it’s too early to tell where funding may come from, but “it goes without saying” that the Legislature sees this issue as a problem.

He offered up the state’s general fund as a source but acknowledged it could be difficult to rely on that appropriation for contracts longer than two years. Franz said the source could possibly have multiple funding sources.

Franz said in discussions with legislators, she believes there is strong support for this bill.

The state spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on fighting wildfires, Franz said. This funding would just be for preventative practices. Springer added the cost of fighting wildfires is much higher than preventing them.

Along with investing in fire prevention statewide, Franz said it’s important to provide funding to fire departments at a local level.

East Pierce Fire Chief Bud Backer said when a wildfire breaks out in his area, all resources are tied up, meaning his people can’t always help with non-wildfire needs in their communities. For example, as his crews fought wildfires this past summer, they had to limit other services, such as responding to people experiencing chest pains.

Wildfires are worsening in Washington each year, Backer said. There’s no denying it.

“There’s no quick fix,” Backer said. “We must prepare today.”

Driving around the Colville Reservation at the end of the summer, Colville Business Council Rodney Cawston said he saw a lot of black landscapes after wildfires destroyed thousands of acres of commercial forests and 80 homes.

Wildfires don’t have jurisdictional boundaries, he said, and there needs to be creative ways to prevent them.

“It’s time for us to take care of Washington and prevent the Evergreen State from going charcoal black,” Franz 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.