Washington lawmakers propose reform in how state fights wildfires

2016-02-05 Ashley Bach

This year's session of the Washington Legislature is about half over, and Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark's request for an extra $24 million to fight wildfires is still active. Goldmark testified last month to a House committee, and a few days later, gave a videoconference address on the need for more wildfire funding.   

Lawmakers have not said no to the money, and in fact seem generally receptive, but some of them say they want to see changes in wildfire operations before any extra funding is approved.

These suggested changes have taken the form of legislation.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, is proposing two bills (SB 6510 and SB 6511) - both of which would increase the state's use of prescribed burns to make forests less suspectible to fires. (Parlette herself is a victim of wildfire - her cabin near Lake Chelan burned down last year.)

Her second bill could lead to more active management of our state's forests. 

Parlette’s second bill, SB 6511, calls for long-term forest health planning, as well as immediate action to conduct burning near vulnerable communities.

The bill directs DNR to identify public and private lands that could threaten communities in case of wildfire and treat all state lands by June 30, 2016, that can be treated by prescribed fire or other “simple methods,” according to a summary of the bill.

...Her bill also calls for development of a 20-year plan for restoring forest health.

“This bill is a broader, more policy-related approach for fire prevention,” Parlette said. “All available fire-prevention techniques would be on the table, including mechanical thinning and prescribed fire.” The bill has bipartisan sponsorship, she said.

It calls for developing plans to treat 2.7 million acres of forest lands in eastern Washington identified by DNR as being in poor health condition, and updating the plan at least every two years.

DNR “shall encourage more intense utilization in logging and alternative silviculture practices and encourage mechanical thinning and prescribed burning when appropriate for forest health improvement and fire prevention,” the proposed legislation states.

A timber representative testified in regard to Parlette's legislation that prescribed burns shouldn't be the only solution.

Tim Boyd, a lobbyist for timber companies Vaagen Brothers and Boise Cascade, said the state also should look at allowing more thinning and timber sales, which would both boost forest health and aid struggling lumber mills.

“Prescribed fire is a useful tool but it’s not the only tool, and it may not be the first and best tool,” Boyd said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, introduced a bill (HB 2596) that would give local fire districts more power to fight wildfires quickly, before the fires grow larger.

Under the proposed legislation, DNR would have half an hour to respond to a local fire district's request for funds, either through direct assistance from the account or by reimbursing the entity for use of its own resources. DNR could also release assets such as aviation services to the entity for immediate response to the fire.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, proposed the bill after consulting with (Noel Hardin, a district fire chief in Asotin County), who reached out to her about issues related to last year's wildfire season, the worst fire season on record in state history.

"We had a lot of fires that could've been contained, but were not, because of lack of access or certainty of funding," Dye said at a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

She said the legislation is aimed to help fire districts, specifically in small, rural areas that don't have access to the assets and resources DNR has. She's hopeful a fast response will help prevent fires from turning into the type of catastrophic events that occurred last summer in the state.

Lastly, Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, is proposing HB 2924, which would allow the Department of Natural Resources to use GPS locators to track firefighters and their vehicles; and HB 2925, which would free up ranchers to go onto burning public lands to retrieve their livestock. 

Dent's first bill had a House committee hearing this week.

“If we knew where (firefighters) were at and they get in trouble,” said Dent during a public hearing on the bill in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, “then it would give us an opportunity to help them.”

Dent’s proposal comes amid a slew of bills intended to improve the state’s response to wildfires, which last year scorched more than a million acres and left three firefighters dead.

...A GPS system could supplement the walkie-talkies and cellphones that firefighters now use and allow for constant tracking of firefighters. Staff at fire-management bases could then monitor where crews are in relation to blazes and expected weather patterns.

“It’s knowing where they’re at in relation to their safety zone and escape routes,” said Sean Triplett of the U.S. Forest Service.