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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State lawmaker proposes heat pump grant to help homeowners rebuild in wake of Spokane County fires

Damage from the Gray fire is photographed from the air above Silver Lake on Sept. 13 near Medical Lake.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Ellen Dennis and Nick Gibson The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – A state budget committee on Monday voted in unanimous support of a proposed grant program to sustainably rebuild structures lost in wildfires around Washington.

Inspired by the devastation the Gray and Oregon Road fires brought to Spokane County, the bill was born out of a monthslong debate among Eastern Washington residents over changes to building code in the state that will take effect next month. The state Building Code Council announced those changes last year.

One change was the near-requirement that, starting this March, newly constructed homes may not use natural gas as a primary energy source for heat if they have access to power and can install heat pumps. If homeowners opt to use natural gas over heat pumps, they must gain construction credits in other, more costly ways.

Some Spokane County residents who lost homes in the August fires expressed frustration with the new construction codes, arguing that changing their heating sources in rebuilt homes would be costly, complicated and potentially cause headaches with insurance forms.

Last fall, Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, and Rep. Suzanne Schmidt, R-Spokane Valley, began working on a proposed law that would have loosened the heat pump requirement for homeowners rebuilding after the Spokane County fires.

The proposal would have created building code exemptions for eligible property owners who applied for building permits before June 2025. That proposal did not make it far through the legislative process before the bill was essentially gutted and rewritten, changing its proposed outcome.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, pitched a bill earlier this year in response to the proposal to loosen heat pump requirements. If passed, Riccelli’s bill would not change building code guidelines. Instead, it would create a state-funded grant program to help rebuilding homeowners.

The state House Appropriations Committee on Monday voted 30-0 in favor of Riccelli’s grant proposal. Money for the grants would come out of the state’s general fund. Riccelli also added an emergency clause to his bill before Monday’s vote, saying it will help money be dispersed more quickly if the bill passes.

“These are devastating fires,” Riccelli said in an interview. “We are trying to navigate them in a way that (legislation) can pass and really deliver real relief to people.”

In a news release last week, County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns said Riccelli’s changes were “misguided,” and did not alleviate the financial burdens of rebuilding up to the building codes set to take effect in March. French and Kerns represent the districts where the Gray and Oregon Road fires burned more than 350 homes.

“These radical changes lack any consideration for the unique challenges faced by wildfire victims,” French said. “If adopted, this bill will gut consumer choice, add cost burdens, and make energy less affordable than under existing codes.”

Kerns said in an interview that the changes ruined the original intent of the bill and replaced it with a grant program for things none of his constituents have asked for, like solar panels and charging stations for electric vehicles.

“This is Marcus, once again, sticking his nose into an issue he doesn’t understand,” Kerns said. “And in this case, I think it just shows you he doesn’t have a heart for these victims, and I think that’s really what’s most disappointing here.”

Riccelli said he worked closely with Volz, the original bill’s sponsor, to find a version of the bill that would be able to pass so that victims of the fire would get some form of relief.

“My goal in the end is to try and help folks out,” Riccelli said. “I wouldn’t have brought this forward if I didn’t speak with the sponsor, Volz. We looked for something that could get out of committee.”

The grant proposal heads to the House Rules Committee next. If it gets the seal of approval from that committee before a Feb. 13 deadline, the bill will be sent to the House floor for a vote.

This year’s state legislative session will last through March 7.