Alarmed by Trump’s environmental policies, Inslee champions wildfire prevention

By Eli Francovich

The Spokesman-Review

Stepping gingerly through a muddy morass near the Four Mound community, Gov. Jay Inslee is concerned.

“The president is exposing these communities to more forest fires,” he said Tuesday.

Washington’s governor was referring to President Donald Trump’s stated intention to slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget as well as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s skepticism about the cause of climate change.

“Fire is a threat because of increasing drought, because of increasing heat, because of beetle kill,” Inslee said during his visit to the area northwest of Spokane. “All of which are associated with climate change. Climate change is a threat to increased forest fires.”

Pruitt, who was narrowly confirmed as the head of the EPA in February, recently said he doesn’t believe climate change is caused by human activity such as the burning of fossil fuels.

“I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” Pruitt told CNBC last week.

Both NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have found climate change to be directly linked to human activity.

Inslee’s visit also drew attention to his state budget request for improving forest health. A portion of the $25 million request would fund the creation of 80 additional Firewise communities. There are 143 Firewise communities throughout the state, the third most in the nation.

The governor was visiting Bonnie Cobb’s property Tuesday. Cobb has worked to increase the fire awareness and safety in the rural community south of Long Lake. Since 2015 she has been the vice chairman of Spokane County Fire District 5. Prior to that she was the district’s fire chief.

She lost 20 acres of timberland and three outbuildings in the 1991 fires known as Firestorm. Compared to many, Cobb was lucky. Since then she’s become increasingly engaged in wildfire prevention and started a Firewise program for the Four Mound community in 2013.

“(I’m) trying to reduce the risk of fire before a fire comes through,” Cobb said.

Firewise is a national prevention and education program. Participants commit to creating defensible space around buildings and thinning forests, with some support from the state and federal government.

On Tuesday a Washington Department of Natural Resources crew thinned trees on land adjacent to Cobb’s as Inslee and his entourage watched.

“Ever since ‘Fargo’ I’ve been nervous about wood chippers,” the governor joked, referring to the 1996 film by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Cobb’s neighbor hesitated to sign up for the Firewise program or allow thinning of his land. But Cobb’s example convinced him.

That’s exactly how it’s supposed to work, said Annie Schmidt, a director for the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Network.

“She brought the community along with her,” Schmidt said.

The goal of Firewise is to encourage communities to engage actively in fire prevention before fires start. It’s a collaborative model that requires buy-in at the individual, municipal and state level.

“What Firewise does is it enables communities to have an entry point to be more resilient and more adaptive,” she said.

As for any change in attitude or support at the federal level, Schmidt said the importance of landowners keeping their land maintained doesn’t change.

“Those actions are incumbent upon us regardless of what’s happening,” she said, adding later, “The right thing to do is the right thing to do.”