It’s time to stop the bucket brigade. State needs funding source to prevent and fight wildfires

Brace yourself, Western Washington: The state Department of Natural Resources warns this year’s wildfire season is going to be a doozy. DNR has already reported 478 wildfires; 187 of them have been on our side of the state.

“The recent spike in temperatures is only going to make things worse,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz recently told our Editorial Board.

When Franz says Washington faces an unprecedented crisis, we believe her. Our state has 2.7 million acres of diseased and dying forestland; combine that with an unseasonably dry and mild winter and catastrophic fires are almost inevitable.

The urgency is not lost on our representatives in Washington, D.C. This past week U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell implored the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to provide much-needed technology for the upcoming fire season.

Washington’s junior senator wants GPS locations for firefighting crews and unmanned aircraft that can map fires in real time. “Do not study this for an entire year – pick the most urgent tools that you can implement today.”

But flipping the script on unhealthy forests requires both short- and long-term planning. As part of the latter, Washington needs to give more serious consideration to adopting a targeted, modestly sized tax on property owners, rather than continually raiding the general fund.

The fires are not just an Eastern Washington phenomenon. Last year, 40 percent of the estimated 1,850 wildfires that blazed through the state were west of the Cascades.

Unfortunately, decades of underfunding have weakened the ability to prevent these fires. In 2018, the state spent $153 million battling them, but that didn’t save 440,000 acres from being turned to ash.

It’s why Franz, who oversees 5.6 million acres of state lands, went to the 2019 Legislature asking for $55 million for forest management. She told them what she told us: “Right now our state is at the highest risk for wildfires in the nation.”

Since taking office in 2016, Franz has been a loud advocate for preventive measures such as creating buffer zones through tree thinning and setting controlled blazes. She’s not the first DNR chief to make that case, but her push to make communities more fire-adaptive, which she says could have limited the lives lost in last year’s catastrophic California fires, is innovative.

She wants the public to get the message that they can create defensible spaces around homes and properties.

This year the Legislature had the good sense to hear Franz; the memory of smoke-filled skies and some of the world’s worst air quality in recent summers certainly made an impact. As a result, the DNR now has $50 million to update technology. Two helicopters will be added to the agency fleet and Franz can employ 43 full-time firefighters.

While these reinforcements are a drop in the bucket of what’s required to prevent and put out super fires, at least the DNR can accelerate efforts to meet its 20-year forest health plan, one that calls for restoring 1.5 million acres by 2033.

Meanwhile, Congress and President Trump saw that it was in the country’s best interest that the western half of the U.S. didn’t go up in smoke. Starting in 2020, $2 billion will go toward fire suppression and prevention. And thanks to Washington representatives, the federal practice of “fire borrowing” is over. The U.S. Forest Service no longer will have to deplete its budget fighting massive wildfires, which had left little for prevention.

Franz wants to see a similar paradigm on the state level. Tired of DNR having to compete for limited dollars in the state general fund, she seeks a permanent funding stream. Local, state and tribal fire departments would also benefit. To that end, 2019 state lawmakers considered a proposed tax increase on property and casualty insurance premiums. The tax would have cost the average homeowner less than $2 per month and could have generated $62.5 million per year designated for fire management.

The idea sparked some support from Senate Democrats, but the House viewed it like an unattended campfire in the Capitol Rotunda. Not here. Not now.

But given that wildfire seasons are more severe and lasting longer, a separate state fund for fire management makes sense. Preventive measures won’t stop all fires, but they can change the movement of mega fires once they start and reduce overall property damage.

Most of our resources still go toward responding to fires and not enough toward preventing them. Smokey Bear only got it half right when he claimed, “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.” The truth is money can, too.