By Sen. Brad Hawkins
In recent years, the communities in North Central Washington have sadly experienced a significant impact from catastrophic wildfire. Our district has endured many devastating fires, including back-to-back years of the state’s largest wildfires, in 2014 and 2015.
In 2020, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) responded to nearly 1,640 fires, including the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties. This past year, wildfires continued to impact our region. Included among them were Wenatchee’s Red Apple Fire and the Cedar Creek and Cub Creek fires in the Methow Valley.
Our risk of wildfire has been increasing, which is why proactive measures for forest management and fire response are necessary. These two areas will continue to be important priorities for me as I advocate for our district and adequate wildfire funding.
A stronger approach
Washington state has been working toward a stronger, more comprehensive approach to reducing our risk of wildfires. That’s why I’m encouraged by the Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz.
I’ve worked closely with Commissioner Franz and DNR staff over recent years and am very proud of the bill we passed together in 2017, Senate Bill 5546, to direct the state DNR to set up a framework for assessing and treating fire-prone lands.
The law sets a specific goal of assessing and treating 1 million acres over 16 years, most likely through prescribed fire and strategic thinning. This process is now underway, but it will likely take several years of aggressive thinning and responsible prescribed fire in order to minimize our risk of catastrophic fires. As we’ve learned from the Era of Megafires discussions that originated in Wenatchee, we must take a proactive approach with wildfires in all neighborhoods and at every level of government.
This includes responsible thinning and prescribed burning on state and federal forestlands, along with taking aggressive steps to create defensible space around your homes and neighborhoods through the Firewise program. We must also ensure the state’s firefighting capability is as effective and efficient as possible.
Increasing state support
For the 2021-23 biennium, the state budget significantly increased its support for forest health and wildfire response. Positioning additional resources in strategic locations across the state has shortened the response time when new blazes are spotted and has helped us put out fires soon after they start rather than just “managing” the fires once they begin burning.
The state has recently converted to year-round wildfire staff, funded more seasonal staff, acquired additional firefighting air assets, and has contracted for priority private aircraft response. The Legislature also approved House Bill 1168 to direct investments of $500 million over the next eight years for wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience.
I was proud to join my legislative colleagues in supporting this bill last session. Passing this expanded policy was a multi-year effort by Commissioner Franz and her DNR staff. I was very proud to support this effort. These new investments are important because the state has already spent hundreds of millions in recent years reimbursing the costs of wildfires.
And that does not even factor in the negative long-term economic impact that wildfires have had on communities in our district, including the impact on our all-important tourism or recreational opportunities. There are also emotional costs and losses that cannot be quantified, as courageous firefight
Finally, there is a quality-of-life impact caused by wildfires, as smoke can blanket a region, making it dangerous for people to be outdoors and difficult for many to breathe.
Legislature OKs SB 5158
After the Electric Utilities Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force released its recommendations to the Legislature, I began partnering with Chelan PUD and DNR to boost funding for the group and help implement its recommendations. My Senate Bill 5158, signed into law by the governor in 2021, directs Commissioner Franz to work with a Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Advisory Committee to implement recommendations.
These recommendations involve ways to prevent utility-caused wildfires, including model agreements to remove dangerous trees, developing communications protocols, and considering investigation recommendations. The group’s work would be maintained and periodically updated on DNR’s website to benefit utilities and our state.
This work is very important to many of our local utilities, especially considering the 12th District’s recent history of catastrophic wildfires.
The state wildfire season is unfortunately growing longer. It is not even a wildfire “season” anymore because fires are occurring as early as April and some aren’t totally extinguished until a heavy rain or snowfall late in the year.
Wildfires are no longer just impacting areas in central or eastern Washington. We’re seeing wildfires west of the Cascades, also. This is having a significant and growing impact on our state budget and local communities.
The Legislature has taken positive steps forward recently on wildfire policy with my bills and others. Each session going forward, there likely will be one or more wildfire bills of interest.
Sen. Brad Hawkins serves the 12th Legislative District.