Franz lays out budget requests to support new strategy
Washington needs additional firefighters and helicopters, accelerated forest-health programs, and better training for fire crews to confront the reality of more wildfires and longer fire seasons that now threaten all regions of the state. The state also needs to extend protection to rangeland that’s currently outside the jurisdiction of all firefighting agencies.
These proposals are in the Washington State Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan released last week by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). DNR is seeking $55 million over two years from the state Legislature to reduce wildfire risk and be able to respond more quickly to new wildfires.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz outlined the strategic plan in a news conference two weeks ago. The budget request includes:
• boosting DNR’s full-time firefighting staff by adding 30 full-time firefighters to the current 43.
• adding 40 seasonal firefighters to the usual force of 550.
• adding two helicopters — one for firefighting and one for training and reconnaissance — to DNR’s current fleet of nine.
• expanding interagency training for firefighters from state, federal and tribal agencies and local fire districts.
• authorizing new rangeland-protection associations to provide firefighting for areas of “no-man’s land.”
The plan also seeks to put forest-health programs, such as thinning and prescribed burning, on a faster track. Franz said she saw first-hand the benefits of fuels reduction in Okanogan County when a blazing fire stopped at the edge of a forest thinned the previous year.
The Legislature has already committed to funding forest health through a 20-year initiative to treat 1.25 million acres of forests in eastern Washington launched last year, said Franz.
DNR is also seeking more money to help landowners and communities reduce fire risk and create more defensible space.
Although Franz stressed the urgency of addressing wildfire risk and forest health across the state — for the first time last year, 40 percent of fires occurred in Western Washington — the Methow earned a special mention for last summer’s destructive and costly blazes. Franz noted that total firefighting costs (for all agencies) for the Crescent Mountain and McLeod fires in the Methow came to $55 million, even though other fires in the state were larger. Over the past five years, DNR alone has spent an average of $153 million annually on firefighting, she said.
With a record number of blazes, the 2018 season was like a game of whack-a-mole, with firefighters trying to keep each fire small so they’d be available to move on to the next round of fires, said Franz.
Although the number of fires has been increasing in recent years, quicker response — by stationing personnel and aircraft in fire-prone regions — helped keep most fires to 10 acres or less, said Franz. In 2018, there were more than 1,850 fires, but only 440,000 acres burned, compared to 2015, when there were 1,700 fires and 1 million acres burned, Franz said.
But 93 percent of the 2018 fires were caused by people. DNR’s budget request includes money for public education to reverse that sobering statistic.
DNR also wants funding to assess risks in burned areas and to help communities rebuild after a fire.
With 43 full-time and 550 seasonal firefighters, DNR has the largest firefighting force in the state. But last year’s fire season took 4,300 firefighters from multiple agencies to combat the blazes. Because fire crews from so many agencies work together, conducting more interagency trainings — before the fire season — is vital, said Franz.
Daniel Lyon, the firefighter severely burned in the 2015 Twisp River Fire, has joined Franz in the campaign to improve training for firefighters and secure funding for permanent positions for instructors. Since his injury and long hospitalization and recovery, Lyon said, “I’ve been trying to advocate for better training for firefighters, and better safety techniques.”
In addition to DNR’s dedicated fire crews, many DNR employees (such as engineers, geologists and administrative staff) are dispatched to fires when needed. But those deployments take these people away from their regular jobs, said Carlo Davis, DNR’s communications director.
The state is also taking an interagency approach to planning and forest management. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service have signed a Good Neighbor Authority that enables the state to undertake forest-health treatments on federal land, said Franz.
The agencies also are treating the state as an interconnected ecosystem. That means teaming up on salmon habitat in five national forests, removing culverts, cleaning up the marine waters, and restoring shoreline habitat, said Franz.
Because different agencies work together so closely, the partial federal government shutdown is affecting preparedness and planning for the coming fire season, said Franz. Some interagency training sessions have been canceled because federal partners were not able to attend, said Franz.
“As our wildfire seasons grow longer, every single day counts in our ability to prepare for fire season,” she said. “This is a matter of life and death — we can’t waste time or resources.”