Historic Bill Focuses on Wildfire Prevention, Forest Reclamation
Since coming into office in 2017, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has asked the Washington State Legislature to direct more funding to the state’s ability to address wildfires. On the tails of a particularly destructive fire season in 2020, the commissioner has had her request granted with 2SHB 1168.
This blog will provide an overview of the legislation, which creates a first-of-its-kind Wildfire Response, Forest Restoration, and Community Resilience Account in the state budget and will increase spending on wildland fire prevention and response activities by $125 million over the next two years and up to $328 million by 2027.
Dry Conditions Statewide, Likely Not to Abate
According to the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the number of acres burned each year due to wildfire has been steadily increasing over the last decade. And while 2020 saw the burning of over 800,000 acres, the loss of 298 homes, and the almost total destruction of the Town of Malden, 2015 is actually tagged as the worst wildfire season for the state, with fires burning 1 million acres, costing the state more than $342 million. Washington has also periodically experienced the some of the worst air quality in the world due to wildfires.
While wildfires are more commonly thought of as a threat for Central and Eastern Washington communities, Western Washington has also been at increased risk due to dryer winters and warmer summers. According to the National Weather Service, this April has been the seventh warmest Seattle has experienced according to record, and it was preceded by a record-setting dry March.
Regardless of location, all across the state the challenge of fighter fire in the wildland urban interface —a space where both forests and human-built structures are at risk — is the same: it takes a combination of both wildland fire fighting and urban firefighting to handle these fires, both due to the size and intensity of a forest fire, as well as the fact that the methods and equipment used to fight fires in an urban versus a forested setting are different and specialized to the need.
The Legislative Solution: A Three-Part Plan
2SHB 1168 was heavily influenced by the DNR and promoted by Commissioner Franz. The bill creates the aforementioned Wildfire Response, Forest Restoration and Community Resilience Account to fund projects that are consistent with the state’s 20-year forest health plan and the 10-year wildland fire protection plan. These plans offer a three-tiered approach to wildfire prevention — wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience strategies — with the understanding that restoring healthy forests can help to prevent wildfires and mitigate the strength of those that do occur.
Not surprisingly, the bulk of funds ($71 million) and focus of the bill is on activities to improve the state’s ability to fight wildfires, including:
- Adding 100 wildland firefighters to the state's 1,300 full and part-time force;
- Paying minimum wage to incarcerated individuals on Department of Corrections firefighting crews;
- Establishing specialized forest restoration programs in state universities and community colleges to train workers in wildfire mitigation (e.g., controlled burns) and managing forest health (e.g., mechanical thinning, improving the soil, prescribed burns, etc.);
- Upgrading the state’s small and outdated fleet of helicopters used to fight wildfires (10 of 11 planes date back to the Vietnam War), allowing some these to fly at night or to search for fires using infrared sensors, as well as adding up to two new planes;
- Purchasing new air tankers for carrying water/fire retardant to fires — the state currently only has one;
- Purchasing 20 new bulldozers to complement the state’s single one (useful for creating fire breaks during wildfires and for clearing trees and downed brush);
- Installing cameras at mountaintop fire lookouts (locations are currently unmonitored); and
- Supporting the expansion of local fire departments in fire-prone areas of the state.
The DNR is responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of private, state, and tribal owned land across Washington. Its’ 20-year forest health plan estimates that about 1,950 square miles of Washington forests are unhealthy and need serious intervention, some of which is actually managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
Proposed forest restoration activities accounts for roughly $35 million in funding. The DNR will focus on state-owned land in fire prone areas (roughly 2.7 million acres) and USFS-managed forests that abut state-owned forests. Crews will work to clear dead or dying brush, branches, and fallen trees in dense forests through tactics such as prescribed burning or mechanical thinning to create more open space between large, healthy trees.
This bill also dedicates $9.4 million towards educating private landowners about wildfire preparation, in order to help them make their property more fire resistant.
Building resilient communities
2SHB 1168 includes roughly $19.6 million to fund activities that build communities prepared for and resilient in the face of wildfires. This includes community-based educational programs designed to help homeowners understand how (and why) to prepare for wildfires by creating defensible spaces both on their own land and throughout their communities.
One example of this approach is the Wildfire Ready Neighbors, a six-week pilot program DNR is currently running in Okanogan, Chelan, and Spokane counties. Goals of this program are to:
- Encourage residents to assess personal risk and take action to make their properties more wildfire ready,
- Offer free forest health consultations and home assessments to residents,
- Make available local/state resources related to wildfire risk reduction,
- Connect residents to trained contractors to assist with risk-reduction activities, and
- Build community partnerships around issues of wildfire preparedness and resiliency.
The state will also offer $4.3 million in grants to communities at risk of catastrophic fires (e.g., in the wildland-urban interface) to fund programs and activities that help prepare community members for such emergencies.
The Effort Is Just Beginning
According to the United States Drought Monitor, most of Eastern and Central Washington is experiencing severe to extreme drought conditions currently. With traditional fire season less than a month away, and several high-profile wildfires reported as early as April, some are concerned that the 2021 wildfire season could be especially destructive.
Crowded, unhealthy forests coupled with hot, dry summer seasons increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires. With a focus on both fighting fires and restoring forest health, 2SHB 1168 represents a more holistic effort in addressing this growing problem in Washington.
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