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State-Based Efforts, Legislation Boost Local Risk Reduction, Resiliency to Wildfires

Wildfire under an electrical transmission line in a forested area

The National Interagency Fire Center shows there is an above-normal potential for significant wildfires to occur throughout Washington this August. Contributing factors are above-normal temperatures, below-normal seasonal precipitation, and a buildup of potential fuels (grasses, etc). Burns bans are already in place throughout the state, including Western Washington counties of Pierce Skagit, Thurston, Jefferson, and King.

This blog will look at a few activities the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has done to prepare for the 2023 wildfire season, bills passed during the 2023 Regular Legislative Session addressing wildfires, and proposed permanent rules to protect outdoor workers from wildfire smoke.

DNR Preparations

With expanded funding from prior legislative sessions, the DNR has introduced new services and expanded others.

New support to individual landowners can be found at DNR’s Landowner Assistance Portal, which helps owners connect with DNR foresters and learn about agency programs, and the Small Forest Landowner Office, which offers financial and technical assistance to owners for tree management.

DNR’s community-based Wildfire Readiness Program, which was launched 2021, has been expanded to Western Washington. It operates in Chelan, Okanogan, Spokane, Yakima, Klickitat, Kittitas, and, new in 2023, Pierce, Mason, Thurston. This helps program helps participants prepare for wildfires, and in particular, how to make their residences more resilient. Residents in participating areas can sign up to receive a free, customized resiliency plan or get an in-person consultation.

DNR (and other local fire agencies) have also conducted forest thinning and prescribed burns to reduce the amount of brush and other combustible materials. Many projects were helped along with federal funding through the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program, which funded 13 projects in the state this year.

2023 Legislation Related to Wildfire Prevention, Response, and Recovery

There are three bills this year that are worth looking at, all of which are effective beginning July 23, 2023.

Addressing the cascading impacts of wildfires

Broadly, 2SHB 1578 is intended to improve community preparedness, response, recovery, and resilience to wildfires across the state. DNR will be leading these efforts, though it will be partnering with several other agencies and organizations.

In a new twist, the bill targets the impact of wildfire smoke on public health and requires the DNR — with help from the Washington Department of Ecology (DOE), local clean air agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service — to deploy mobile air quality monitoring equipment, conduct simulation modeling, and provide real-time data and smoke exposure forecasting services. DNR will collaborate with DOE to share this information with the public.

The bill requires DNR to assess areas at high risk for wildfires every 10 years, starting in 2025, and this analysis must take into account “the predicted climate influence on wildfire risk” in the state. DNR will collaborate with the Washington Military Department Emergency Management Division and the Washington State Patrol to develop evacuation plans for these in high-risk areas.

Finally, by 2028, DNR must implement a post-wildfire program that identifies areas prone to hazards from debris flow following wildfire events and create a statewide emergency stabilization and response team to implement post-debris flow hazard mitigation. 

Mitigating wildfire risk through electric utility planning

2SHB 1032 mitigates the risk of wildfires through electric utility planning. By April 1, 2024, DNR and the Washington Energy Resilience and Emergency Management Office must create an electric utility wildfire mitigation plan template and identify elements to be included in it.

Using this draft plan, utilities must create and submit their own plans by Oct. 31, 2024, and review/update these plans every three years. Electric utilities must give local fire protection districts working in the area the opportunity to provide input on these mitigation plans.

DNR’s Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Advisory Committee will develop recommendations for strengthening state agency coordination of wildland fire risk reduction, prevention, and suppression, and will publish utility wildfire mitigation plans on its website.

Last June, for the first time ever, the Washington Public Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) asked state utilities to submit plans for wildfire prevention and response, including how each company manages vegetation and whether it had plans to shut off power under extreme conditions. The UTC’s Wildfire webpage offers examples of 2022 plans from PacifiCorp and Puget Sound Energy (PSE). Other samples include the Cowlitz County PUD Wildfire Mitigation Plan (2021), Avista (2023), and the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative Wildfire Mitigation Plan (2022).

Spokane Public Radio reported in early July that Avista is moving into "fire safety mode" due to high wildfire danger in its service area. As fires raged through Western Washington in September 2022, nearby utilities proactively shut down to prevent utility-caused disasters, a tactic utilized by California and Oregon utilities during times of high heat and high winds.

Aviation assurance funding

Under ESHB 1498, any local fire department that incurs expenses because it needs to use aviation suppression efforts to fight a wildfire (i.e., helicopters or planes dump water or fire retardant on the area) can be reimbursed by the state for those expenses. The bill was developed with input from local fire agencies that often don’t have the resources to fight wildland fires and must request aerial fire support for an initial attack.

L&I Issues Proposed Permanent Rules on Wildfire Smoke

Two years after the Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) implemented an emergency seasonal rule explicitly protecting outdoor workers from wildfire smoke, the agency is evaluating public response to a proposed permanent rule to protect outdoor worker from air pollution caused by particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5, which is among the many pollutants measured in the air quality index (AQI).

Under the proposed rules, employers are required to prepare a wildfire smoke response plan, provide training to workers, and monitor daily forecasts and hourly estimates for PM 2.5 or the AQI equivalent (for monitoring tools, see Washington Air Quality Advisory or AirNow.gov). Employers must take action when the AQI passes various thresholds — 69, 100, 300, and 500.

  • At an AQI of 69-99, workers must be aware of the wildfire smoke response plan and safety training.
  • At an AQI between 100-299, employers must limit employees’ exposure to smoke and have N95 respirators available for employees.
  • At an AQI between 300-499, employers must move affected employees to a location with clean air and pass out N95 respirators to employees.
  • At an AQI of 500-555, employees must wear respirators and follow instructions for their safe usage, including fit-testing, medical evaluations, and being clean-shaven.
  • At above 555 micrograms per meter cubed of PM2.5 (beyond AQI), employees must wear respirators with an assigned protection factor of 25 or more, per the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The proposed rules would apply to all outdoor workplaces but not to workers who are indoors, in cars with the doors and windows shut, or wildland firefighters. L&I also recently implemented heat rules for outdoor workers.

Conclusion

Even as summer wildfires look to become part of a new normal for communities across the state, local and state agencies are building up resources and coordinating efforts to mitigate the effects of such events on people, places, and the environment.



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About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.
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