The 2018 wildfire season ended as the second-worst on record, with nearly 1,700 fires burning about 350,000 acres in Washington state. But Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz said improved firefighting techniques and more resources helped keep 95 percent of fires to less than 10 acres and avoided a repeat of 2015, when 1,750 fires burned 1 million acres across the state.
Franz plans to ask the Legislature for an additional $55 million to fight catastrophic wildfire and restore forest health in the 2019-21 budget. An additional $38 million in operating funds would nearly double DNR’s existing wildfire allocation. The agency also will request $17 million from the capital budget to treat more than 32,000 acres of forest.
“Our communities and our taxpayers cannot continue to sustain the losses that our forest health crisis is inflicting on Washington state,” Franz said during a news conference in Tumwater on Wednesday. “Over the last five years the response to the megafires we have seen in Washington state that have threatened our communities has cost our state alone $1 billion.”
She credits an emphasis on putting resources in spots most likely to burn and attacking fires by air, a big reason the proposal includes $6 million for two new helicopters. Franz and others at the news conference also stressed the need for more training, with an additional $2.2 million request.
More forest health projects like one done near Cle Elum two weeks ago would help reduce fuels to lower the intensity of wildfires. Franz also emphasized the need for education on how to prevent fires, since 95 percent of this year’s fires were human-caused.
Those steps would ideally lower the cost of fighting fires, which Franz said came out to at least $150 million in 2018 and may surpass $200 million in the final estimate. More than $14 million was spent on the Miriam Fire near White Pass, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
State Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who serves on the Legislature’s wildfire caucus, said at the news conference he believes colleagues will be more willing to offer additional assistance after 35 percent of Washington’s fires occurred on the westside this year. Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue Chief Dave LaFave expressed support for the budget request on behalf of Washington Fire Chiefs and the DNR’s Wildland Fire Advisory Committee.
“It takes multiple solutions and my dad, who was one of the most wise men I’ve ever known, I can hear his words right now, he would say son, ‘Same decision today, same outcome tomorrow,’ ” he said. “We need a different decision and we need something that changes the approach to what we’re doing.”
Some of the new funding would go to more training exercises to facilitate collaboration between firefighters at all levels, from local to federal. Chairman of Colville Confederated Tribes Rodney Coston praised the collaboration, noting it will take time to repair the damage done by federal policies that eliminated the regular, intentional fires started by tribes to keep the forest healthy.
Franz and others noted the value of prescribed fires as a critical part of the 20-year plan to restore 70,000 acres per year. The massive undertaking won’t be easy, especially with droughts expected to continue as summers become hotter and drier.
“But if we can have the resources for forest health and pre-positioning our equipment in the critical areas where we are seeing fire — eastern and western — we will be able to get on those fires quicker with the kinds of capacity we need and keep those fires smaller,” Franz said. “Over time in the next couple years my goal is you’re going to see clear blue skies” instead of wildfire smoke in the summer.