OLYMPIA – After a historically deadly and destructive 2020 wildfire season, lawmakers are looking at ways to invest in forest health and wildfire prevention. A bill that passed the state House of Representatives unanimously last week might do just that.
The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, would set up a dedicated funding account, investing about $125 million every two years for wildfire response, forest health and community resilience – something Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, legislators and advocates have been pushing for years.
Franz thinks this year is different.
“The Legislature and the public finally woke up to what we’ve known for a long time,” she said. “We are basing our wildfire response on hope and luck and prayers, and our time is running out.”
The bill would be the biggest investment in wildfire prevention and forest health the Legislature’s ever funded. Kretz said he has been introducing less ambitious bills on this topic for years, but “this is the big one that really needs to happen to make measurable impacts.”
While it passed the House unanimously last week, the funding source for the bill has yet to be determined, and those will be “really hard discussions,” Kretz said.
Franz has pushed the Legislature to provide massive long-term funding like this before, but she’s
only ever received smaller amounts to be used on specific needs. This year, she changed her strategy. Instead of coming to the Legislature with a bill that had funding attached, she focused on the policy ideas that she knew might get support and left the funding up to lawmakers.
Democratic leaders told reporters last week they weren’t sure where funding for this proposal might come from but they knew it was a priority. Spokane Democratic Sen. Andy Billig said he was confident there would be robust funding for forest health and wildfire prevention.
Wildfires are getting progressively worse every year, Billig said, and the Legislature is beginning to recognize that forest health is not just for the sake of forest health. It’s for people, too.
Some funding may come from the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package which gives Washington some money for capital projects. Some of that may be able to go to wildfire prevention, Kretz said, but it is still one-time funding.
Kretz said he would like to see money coming mostly from the state’s general fund with some support from federal funding, at least for the first two years.
Other ideas could be a small tax on insurance or a small tax on utilities, he said.
The state spends about $150 million each year fighting wildfires. The three areas that this bill would fund are all proactive to help the state avoid spending that money fighting fires each year, Franz said.
“The idea that we should just wait for a bigger snowpack or perhaps a wet summer is not a plan,” Springer said during the floor debate last week. “It’s delusion.”
The funding for forest health would accelerate the Department of Natural Resource’s Forest Health Strategic Plan, which would treat 1.25 million acres during the next 20 years. About $34.5 million would go toward this restoration as well as bolstering local fire districts with another $1.2 million toward workforce training to create career pathways and firefighting, foresting and mill working jobs in communities.
Forest health is Kretz’s main priority as the state needs to remove fuels on the forest floor and create a fire-resilient forest.
The fire treatment plan includes thinning, treating disease, doing prescribed burns and clearing debris – all treatments that could prevent fires from spreading rapidly.
“That literally is helping our forests become firefighters,” Franz said.
Justin Allegro, director for state government relations for The Nature Conservancy, said the state’s forests are in great need of restoration and treatment.
“All the forests in the state are woefully unhealthy,” he said.
This bill would recognize the importance of treating wildfires and climate change at scale, instead of “piecing around the edges,” Allegro said.
The new funding account would also set aside $70.8 million every two years for wildfire response. In the next two years, that means hiring 100 more firefighters and buying two new planes. Many fire crews are volunteer, Franz said.
The bill also would fund upgrades for local fire departments that are often the first on scene, Kretz said.
The final piece of the bill is funding community resilience projects, including fuel breaks and prescribed fires. It would also provide direct assistance to home owners to secure their property. Community resilience hasn’t been part of previous legislation, Franz said, but after seeing the destruction in the Whitman County town of Malden, she knew it should be included.
More than 2 million homes in Washington are vulnerable to wildfire, according to a U.S. Forest Service wildfire risk assessment.
“We need to take all steps possible to help protect our communities and give them a chance to be able to survive these fires,” Franz said.
Kretz pointed to the A to Z Project in Mill Creek as an example of how some communities are already doing this work by partnering with forestry groups and timber companies to treat forests and raise money for further restoration.
It’s important to let communities decide on their own what is best for keeping their communities safe, Allegro said, adding that climate disasters, such as wildfires, have disproportionate effects on minorities.
This bill would allow those communities to be a part of conversations about wildfire resiliency and forest health, Allegro said. It also could encourage them to join forest health crews and wildfire fighting crews.
The bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration.
After the catastrophic fires last year, Franz said lawmakers are finally understanding wildfires are not just an Eastern Washington issue. Kretz said Seattle-area lawmakers are beginning to experience more fires starting on the West Side.
“It’s a health crisis,” Kretz said. “It’s an environmental crisis.”
Washington residents also recognize the importance of dedicated funding and a statewide approach, Allegro said. The state can’t continue to have uncertainty each year around funding for wildfire fighting.
“We cannot afford to put this off,” he said.Laurel Demkovich can be reached at (509) 416-6260 or email@example.com