Fire Season Brings Renewal of Certain Worker Protections, More Action, and Funding
With 18 counties in eastern Washington experiencing moderate to severe drought conditions, the National Interagency Fire Center is anticipating an above-average wildfire season for portions of the state. In response, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in May put in place restrictions on use of the fireworks, metal or explosive targets, steel component ammunition, tracer shells or incendiary devices, and sky lanterns on all BLM-managed land in Oregon and Washington, in part to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires.
Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the largest firefighting agency in the state, started a 20-year Forest Health Plan in 2017 to combat wildfires. The DNR's long-term goal is to restore 1.25 million acres of forest to healthy conditions by removing flammable material and reducing fuel loads. In 2021, the agency also resumed prescribed burns on state lands — the first time in 18 years.
This blog will cover the latest news related to wildland fires and the response at the federal, state, and local level to reduce fire risk and protect human health.
A Return to Emergency Rules on Outdoor Heat Exposure and Wildfire Smoke
The Washington Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) announced temporary emergency rules in June: one aimed at protecting workers from the hazards of heat exposure and the other from the hazards of wildfire smoke. Effective June 15 through the end of September, these rules require Washington employers to monitor outdoor temperature and air quality.
The outdoor heat exposure rule requires employers to provide outdoor workers adequate cool water and access to shaded areas, as well as paid cooldown breaks every two hours — or more often, if needed, when temperatures hit 89 degrees. While a similar rule was in place last year, a significant change from 2021 is that these requirements kicked in only when temperatures hit triple digits.
Further, depending on the clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE) that workers wear, the requirements may begin at even lower temperatures: For workers who wear double-layer woven clothes such as coveralls, jackets, and sweatshirts, the threshold will be 77 degrees, but it drops to 52 degrees if workers must wear vapor barrier clothing or chemical resistant suits.
The wildfire smoke rule requires employers to monitor air quality and take certain actions when workers are exposed to hazardous air as measured by the Air Quality Index (AQI).
At an AQI of 69, employers are encouraged to:
- Reduce, reschedule, or relocate outdoor work;
- Provide enclosed buildings or vehicles for workers where the air is filtered;
- Reduce the work intensity or increase the rest periods; and
- Provide workers with no-cost respirators, though use of these are voluntary on the part of the worker.
At an AQI of 101 or higher, employers are required to take the steps above. If wildfire smoke is measured at 555 micrograms per cubic meter or higher, workers must be provided with and required to wear more protective respirators. L&I’s 2021’s emergency rule on wildfire smoke had similar requirements.
These rules are only in place for this year, but L&I is drafting permanent regulations. L&I’s Be Heat Smart has complete details on the requirements and additional steps employers and workers can take to prevent heat-related illnesses.
Building Regulations for the Wildland Urban Interface
In 2018, RCW 19.27.560 set a timeline for incorporating portions of the International Code Council’s 2018 International Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code into the State Building Code, as well as completing a statewide map of WUI areas. Last year the Building Code Council began considering proposals for a WUI Code, and several local governments in the state already have already adopted parts of the international code, including the cities of Chelan and Spokane, and Yakima and Kittitas counties.
There are also efforts at the local and state level to reduce sprawl into the WUI, but it is one of the fastest growing land use types in Washington and U.S. at large, with residents not always aware of the dangers and unfamiliar with (or lacking the resources) to fireproof their homes. According to the DNR, not only can a home be threatened by direct fire (e.g., from a tree nearby), but damage can also come from burning embers, some of which can travel over a mile away from a fire. Programs like DNR’s Wildfire Ready help people evaluate the fire risk on their rural properties and can educate homeowners on setting up defensible perimeters around structures.
Federal and State Funding Boosts Firefighting Efforts
In 2021, under HB 1168 Washington state authorized spending $125 million every two years on forest management activities that reduce the amount of flammable material in forests, restore damaged landscapes, respond to wildfire and help communities adapt to the fire conditions. Less than a year later in November 2021, Congress provided the U.S. Forest Service with a total of $5.5 billion as part of the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
This year the Forest Service unveiled a new wildfire management plan and set aside $1 billion for firefighter salaries and expenses. Under an order from President Biden, federal firefighters now make a minimum of $15 per hour, and the infrastructure law makes these pay increases permanent and converts federal firefighters from seasonal to full-time positions. It also creates a new wildland firefighter position, instead of the more general "forestry technician" category in which they had previously served.
In addition to improving incentives for wildland firefighters, the legislation allocates $500 million each to thinning projects, planning and conducting prescribed fires, developing and improving fuel breaks where fires can be stopped or lulled, and mapping and defending at-risk communities in the WUI. It also funds projects such as fire science research, real-time monitoring equipment, and restoration treatments on federal and tribal land with a high wildfire potential.
The Wenatchee World and Methow Valley News recently reported on how this will impact Washington, noting that from 2022 to 2024 about 124,000 acres in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest will receive treatments under the new Forest Service plan, including tree thinning, prescribed burning, and wildland fire planning and analysis. Okanogan County itself is currently updating its 2013 Community Wildfire Protection Plan and has put a burn ban in place through the fall. Further, the Okanogan Conservation District provides free wildfire risk assessments, both pre-and post-construction, to area homeowners and builders and Methow Ready helps to educate and organize areas residents into groups that can support each other and share resources during emergency situations.
Time will reveal whether the Forest Service’s or the DNR’s efforts to better manage forests will prevent more wildland fires, or the improvements to pay and other incentives will build a better prepared federal firefighting workforce; However, the Okanogan County example demonstrates what partnerships across agencies and sectors can accomplish, including the building of healthy forests in the WUI as well as more educated and resilient communities in the face of emergencies.
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