Politics & Government

Wildfire season to require more resources next year, Washington officials say

A firefighter cools a tree in a line of fire Friday, July 18, 2014, in Winthrop, Wash. A fire racing through rural north-central Washington destroyed about 100 homes, leaving behind smoldering rubble, solitary brick chimneys and burned-out automobiles as it blackened hundreds of square miles.
A firefighter cools a tree in a line of fire Friday, July 18, 2014, in Winthrop, Wash. A fire racing through rural north-central Washington destroyed about 100 homes, leaving behind smoldering rubble, solitary brick chimneys and burned-out automobiles as it blackened hundreds of square miles. AP

It’s been only a few months since state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark petitioned the Legislature for money to add firefighting crews and got less than one-third of what he asked for.

Now, after a deadly wildfire season in Washington, he’s asking for five times as much as before and again hoping lawmakers grant his request.

Goldmark, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources, is asking the Legislature for $24 million next year to increase his agency’s ability to fight wildfires.

This year, Goldmark asked for $4.5 million to add firefighting crews and equipment, but got only $1.2 million spread over two years.

The agency’s larger request leading up to the Legislature’s 2016 session is partly to fend off what officials fear could be another devastating fire season next year, Goldmark said.

The 2015 fire season set records for the number of acres burned across the state, topping the 2014 fire season, which was the most destructive in state history.

In August, three U.S. Forest Service firefighters died while fleeing a fast-moving wildfire near Twisp. A firefighter from Puyallup was injured in that blaze and still is recovering.

Goldmark said DNR’s budget request, which among other things would enable the agency to add the equivalent of 50 full-time personnel, aims to catch fires early and keep them small.

“We can’t go through another fire season being understaffed ... and leaving our communities, habitat and forests with less than the best protection we can provide,” Goldmark said Thursday.

The request would help DNR create teams of state, local and contracted firefighters who are in position to respond quickly to developing fires, Goldmark said.

DNR also would use the money to help improve coordination between firefighting agencies, while updating emergency communications systems and helping train local firefighters to battle wildfires.

On top of its request for more personnel and equipment, DNR is seeking $137 million from the Legislature next year to cover cost overruns from fighting this summer’s wildfires.

That’s nearly double what lawmakers approved this year to cover the costs of last year’s fires.

State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said the Legislature shouldn’t have any problem approving DNR’s request to cover the cost of fighting wildfires in 2015.

“These are costs we’ve incurred that we need to pay for,” said Hill, who is the Senate’s chief budget writer.

But Hill said DNR’s $24 million request for more firefighting resources is something lawmakers will have to examine more carefully. Lawmakers will have to ask whether they are funding the “right mix of personnel to machinery” and “the right use of personnel,” he said.

“We’ll want to make sure it will have its desired effect,” Hill said.

Some lawmakers think that adding firefighting personnel and equipment now could save the state money in the long run.

State Rep. Brian Blake, a Democrat from Aberdeen who chairs the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said the state can either invest in strategies to attack wildfires soon after they start, or pay more later to fight wildfires that have grown too big to contain.

“It’s critical that you get crews to these small fires quickly, before they get to be big fires,” Blake said Wednesday. “After having two back-to-back record fire seasons, I think we have to talk about how we do things differently and whether investing resources up front reduces costs on the back end.”

This year in Washington, wildfires have burned more than 1 million acres — more than twice the area damaged by fires in 2014.

Goldmark said about $6 million of his budget request would focus on wildfire prevention measures, such as thinning forests to make them less likely to burn out of control.

“Part of this has to be a strategy to make our landscape more resilient to fire, so when fire approaches, it’s less intense,” Goldmark said.

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