After years of catastrophic wildfires that have ravaged Washington state, the Legislature is considering whether to invest millions of dollars into forest health to head off these blazes.
The bill (HB 1168) was requested by Washington state Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Hilary Franz, who asked for $125 million in each biennium to create a funding source for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience strategies. While the ask is significant, Franz said fighting wildfires costs on average nearly $150 million a year already, not including other expenses like economic impacts or property damage.
And the state isn’t unique. Across the West, states are struggling with battling wildfires. This has created immense pressure for firefighting resources, leading firefighting agencies to compete with each other for everything from helicopters to firefighters.
“We’re seeing these catastrophic fires in every corner of the state,” Franz said. “Year after year, we’re finding ourselves without the resources to fight these fires.”
In Washington state last September, some 600,000 acres burned within 72 hours. It was five times the amount of land that burned in all of 2019, and firefighters were stretched thin. The fires were driven by strong winds, and nearly leveled the town of Malden.
In 2018, there were no firefighters available to help with Washington state blazes, so they had to bring in firefighters from Australia. And last year they were begging for aid, management teams and firefighters, Franz said.
“This bill is setting up the investments that need to be made for Washington state to be dependent on itself,” Franz said.
The number of acres burned each year has been steadily increasing over the last decade. In 2016, some 293,000 acres went up in flames. That figure was more than doubled by 2020, which saw more than 812,000 acres torched.
If approved, the bill would fund 100 new firefighter positions, new firefighting aircraft and fire detection technology, as well as support local fire districts. It would also address the state’s forest health crisis. There are 2.7 million acres of forestland across the state that are dead or dying, Franz said. These trees, coupled with hot and dry summers, help accelerate wildfires.
The bill would invest in forest health across the state, including Western Washington. It would fund removal of dead and dying forests, create space between trees and bring prescribed fires back to the landscape, Franz said.
It would further invest in community resilience. There’s more than 2 million homes at risk of wildfire in the state, including west of the Cascades, which have historically been averse to wildfires.
Franz said the state will have to pay to deal with forest health and wildfires one way or another — either on the front end through proactive management, or the back end by dealing with wildfires.
The House bill is currently being placed on the calendar for a vote after passing through committee.