By Marcy Stamper
With the first lightning-caused fire in the county in early May and the governor’s declaration of a statewide drought this week, government officials and the general public are nervously anticipating another extra-dry summer.
In terms of funding and actual resources — firefighting crews, helicopters, money for fuels reduction — there is so far little change from last year, according to officials from the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service. Still, most state and federal agency officials say they are well prepared for the coming season.
Of the dozen bills introduced in the Legislature since last summer to change the way fires are fought — many pressing for control at the local level or a way to relax rules on deployment — the only one to become law permits individuals to enter private or public land to fight a wildfire that presents an imminent threat. The person would not face liability as long as the actions met certain conditions.
The Okanogan County commissioners believe the law may also provide a way for the county to take quick, initial attack on a fire, according to County Commissioner Ray Campbell. County commissioners criticized state fire managers after the Carlton Complex Fire last summer, saying that bureaucratic procedures had delayed the response and allowed the fire to grow out of control.
The commissioners had sought authorization and funding from the state to take over firefighting, but dropped the effort after amendments fundamentally changed the intent, said Campbell.
But Campbell believes the law that did pass could give the county leeway for the prompt action they desire. The commissioners have asked their legal advisers and insurance carrier to review the legislation to see how it might change the county’s options, said Campbell.
On the federal level, concern has been growing about a phenomenon known as “fire borrowing,” in which money that could be spent on Forest Service programs, including fire prevention through thinning and prescribed burning, is instead used for emergency firefighting.
In the past 20 years, the amount of money spent fighting catastrophic fires has increased from 16 percent of the total Forest Service budget to 42 percent, according to a Forest Service study done last year. Meanwhile, all other programs have seen significant cuts.
Part of the explanation for this shift is the nature of recent fires. Between 1980 and 2011, the average number of fires more than doubled each year, and the total acreage burned has increased threefold, according to the study.
Fire seasons also last 60 to 80 days longer than they used to, according to Tom Tidwell, chief of the Forest Service.
“Essentially, through our management efforts we have changed the distribution of fire behavior to only the most extreme,” concluded three Forest Service scientists in an article published this April. “Now, after more than a century of aggressive suppression the wildfire paradox is fully realized in most western forests,” they wrote.
Limits on fuels reduction
The Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest usually gets between $3 million and $3.5 million to treat hazardous fuels in all seven ranger districts, according to Richy Harrod, deputy fire staff officer for the fuels program. This year, they received almost $1 million more just for the Methow Valley Ranger District, primarily for thinning. That is about three times what the Methow Valley district usually gets.
But all national forests across the country must compete for Congressional allocations. After money for emergency fire suppression is gone, the Forest Service takes money from other programs, said Harrod.
To fight catastrophic fires, funds have been transferred from road, bridge and trail maintenance; vegetation management; and recreation facilities. Other areas that have been affected include wildlife, fisheries, and recreation and wilderness programs, according to the Forest Service study.
Money intended to address deferred maintenance took the biggest hit — a 95-percent reduction, according to the study. Recreation and administration facilities lost 67 percent of their allocation.
Some of these funds have also been shifted to fuels treatments and other fire-related expenses.
The funds are typically restored in subsequent appropriations, but as severe fires grow more common, the cycle of borrowing continues, according to the study.
“They call it fire borrowing, although the money never comes back,” said Harrod.
Funding for fuels reduction is allocated based on a forest’s track record of meeting targets for fuels treatments, and not on need, said Harrod. There has been some effort to devise a formula that would be based on need, but because the need here is so large — four to six times the current treatments — and there is not enough money to go around, they go back to basing it on each forest’s ability to accomplish what it set out to do, said Harrod.
On top of that, the Forest Service needs to balance the two sides of the fuels-treatment budget — planning and implementation. The Methow Valley Ranger District does a great job of thinning and prescribed burning, but is slower with planning, said Harrod.
“It takes years to go through the environmental process. Unfortunately the [Okanogan-Wenatchee] forest doesn’t have a great track record of doing this in a timely manner,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell is urging Congress to do something about the way money is allocated for wildfires. Details of Cantwell’s proposal are still being worked out, but it would most likely set up a separate fund to combat severe fires so that money would not have to be taken from the fuels-treatment budget and other divisions, according to a spokesperson for the senator.
The Forest Service is the only federal agency required to pay for its entire emergency-management program with its regular budget, according to Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist with the Forest Service.
President Obama’s budget for the coming fiscal year also includes a proposal to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded. His proposal would create a special disaster fund to fight the most severe fires, according to Jones. There are similar proposals in both houses of Congress.
DNR wants more money
On the state level, DNR is facing a similar situation. The agency has requested more money from the Legislature for prevention and forest health, as well as for fire suppression, but with no agreement yet on a budget in the Legislature, funding is essentially unchanged from last year.
DNR currently has $4 million to spend on forest health over the next two years. The agency has requested an additional $20 million, according to Janet Pearce, the agency’s communications manager.
Another $1.6 million has been slated for forest health treatments in eastern Washington, where DNR officials estimate that 2.7 million acres are in need. Current funding runs out at the end of June — the end of the biennium, said Pearce.
DNR is also still hoping for more than $4 million to restore 22 positions eliminated by budget cuts after the 2008 recession and to hire new helicopter-based firefighters.
This year, DNR has the same agreements with local and federal firefighting agencies as in 2014, although they have been working on preparedness so resources can be dispatched more efficiently, said Loren Torgerson, Northeast Region manager for DNR.
They aim to eliminate lag time and to bring in additional resources such as the National Guard earlier in the process, he said.
The Okanogan-Wenatchee’s fire-suppression budget has been constant at $7 million for the past several years, after an increase four years ago, according to Matt Castle, deputy fire staff for operations.
Each of the seven ranger districts in the forest, including the Methow Valley, gets one 20-person crew and two engines, each staffed by four or five people, said Castle.
“We feel pretty well supported — it’s a pretty solid resource base,” he said.
In addition, the Okanogan-Wenatchee has three helicopters — a large and a small one with water buckets, plus a third used to transport the agency’s rappel crew (similar to smokejumpers, except they rappel out of helicopters instead of descending with parachutes). They also have a plane to oversee air operations and another for reconnaissance of fire activity.
This season three fire lookouts will be staffed, two in Okanogan County — one on Leecher Mountain and one on Bonaparte Mountain.
Okanogan County is working to upgrade its emergency communications and 911 network. The commissioners have requested $2.2 million from the Legislature for a technology upgrade, and the money has been included in the Senate budget but not the House budget, according to County Commissioner Jim DeTro.
The commissioners have made the upgrade one of their highest priorities. “Even if the Legislature says ‘no’ and doesn’t fund it, we will go forward,” said County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy.
Sen. Cantwell is working on legislation to improve coordination between the Forest Service and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to expedite the response in a disaster. That could include stockpiling generators in areas where large fires are likely so that communication lines and other utilities could be repaired promptly, according to her spokesperson.
“We need to make sure communities have an emergency communications system that’s in place so … we’ll be able to maintain communication,” Cantwell told a Senate committee this month.
“We need to also include [homeowners] in our preplanning meetings so that when the next Carlton happens we’ll have … a higher and better level of support to those communities and … get their services restored faster,” she said.
The county has also launched a new alert system, which enables people to sign up for emergency notifications by home or cell phone, email or text message. People can sign up online through Okanogan County Emergency Management at okanogandem.org. For more information, call (509) 422-7206.