State agency asks for more money to fight wildfires

Washington officials expect 2015 to be a record year for wildfires, with high temperatures and sparse rainfall throughout the state.

State Department of National Resources crews already are battling 204 fires, including a 150-acre fire near Naches. And the threat of fires isn’t just limited to Eastern Washington — there’s a possibility that the west side of the mountains could be affected this year, said Peter Goldmark, state commissioner of public lands.

“I’m concerned that this is going to be another devastating fire season,” Goldmark said.

Goldmark and Gov. Jay Inslee discussed the high likelihood of wildfires Wednesday morning as they took a “pack test,” a requirement for people who visit wildfires in Washington state. The governor and the commissioner take the test every year.

Goldmark and Inslee walked a mile along the shore of Capitol Lake and practiced deploying a fire shelter, a lightweight foil tent that can protect people from searing heat in an emergency.

“It’s very comfortable. First-class accommodations,” Inslee joked.

But in reality, the shelters can be very uncomfortable, said Tammi Ellerbroek, a DNR wildfire training specialist.

They’re not designed to protect people from direct flames, but rather the radiant heat that comes from the fires. The goal is to trap as much air inside the tent as possible, Ellerbroek said. But as bad as conditions can become inside the shelter, it’s usually much worse outside.

“Once you’re entering, you’re not leaving until someone tells you to do so, or until the danger has passed,” Ellerbroek said.

This biennium, Goldmark and DNR are asking for an additional $4.5 million to fight wildfires. This money would purchase additional fire engines, fund additional helicopter teams, and pay for additional training.

Last biennium, the Legislature allocated $25 million to fight wildfires, Goldmark said. But last year, DNR spent an additional $7 million while fighting the Carlton Complex fire, the largest in state history. The fire burned more than 250,000 acres of land and destroyed hundreds of homes.

Inslee said legislators haven’t started discussing the additional $4.5 million in funding yet, and that there’s no guarantee that DNR will receive it.

“I’m not confident of anything in the budget yet because it hasn’t been done. … The Legislature ought to finish their budget before fire season really gets going,” Inslee said.