Bill proposing dedicated fund for wildfire response introduced in Legislature

By Emily Fitzgerald

The Chronicle

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, joined experts and advocacy leaders from across the state to unveil House Bill 1168, which would create a dedicated funding source for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience strategies.

It’s the latest strategy to fund wildfire response by Franz, who has seen previous efforts fail in recent legislative sessions.

The legislation — developed with the input of a wide-ranging coalition of firefighters, fire chiefs, tribes, environmentalists, public health advocates and forest products companies — would create a first-of-its-kind dedicated funding account for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience a year after wildfires tore through West Coast states with ferocity.

Franz is asking the Legislature to create this account and fund it with $125 million each biennium.

“Out-of-control wildfires now threaten families and communities on both sides of the Cascades,” said Franz. “We can’t afford to have another wildfire season as devastating as last year’s. We know what needs to be done to change the trajectory we’re on — we just need the political will and resources to make it happen.”

If passed, the bill would dedicate $75.2 million to wildfire response, $31.4 million to forest restoration, $12.6 million to “community resilience” — such as offering direct assistance to homeowners to secure their properties and investing in defensive strategies such as fuel breaks and prescribed fires — and $5.9 million for workforce training.

“Our forests are burning, our towns are burning, and Washingtonians are losing homes and livelihoods,” said Springer, who is the prime sponsor of the bill in the House. “This is not going to end by itself. Hoping it will is a fantasy.”

The state’s trajectory for wildfire severity has worsened in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

“I have seen firsthand how devastating wildfires in our nation and particularly our state can be,” said Daniel Lyon, a former firefighter and wildfire injury survivor. “That is why I believe that it is crucial that we provide the needed funding to our state’s firefighting resources to better protect the public, property, and our men and women who are battling these blazes.”

The bill comes on the heels of a historically destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 800,000 acres burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden.

“Over my 32 years as a firefighter in Western Washington, I have witnessed a concerning change — slow moving fires are being replaced by wildfires that spread quickly to homes and other buildings,” said East Pierce County Fire Chief Bud Backer. “Dry weather conditions that fuel rapid wildfire growth now occur more and more in Western Washington. More and more, these fires threaten the lives of our neighbors. We must have additional resources to combat these fires when they erupt.”

The bill aims to fund 100 new full-time firefighters, 20 dozer operators, two new fixed-wing planes, upgrades to the state’s Huey helicopters and the addition of night vision technology and fire detection systems for current aircraft.

The funding is intended to provide the proactive resources needed for immediate fire response and provide the long-term investments needed to fulfill goals outlined in the Department of Natural Resources’ 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan and Wildland Fire Prevention 10-year Strategic Plan — including the restoration of forests on federal, state, tribal and private land.

“The longer fire seasons and stronger fires experienced on the Colville Reservation have destroyed thousands of acres of commercial forests, costing millions in lost revenue for years to come,” said Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Colville. “Consequences also include mudslides, road and bridge destruction, impacts to cultural resources, and, worst of all, danger to human life. We cannot wait to improve fire management.”

Franz has not identified a specific funding source for the plan.