More resources needed for record wildfire season


While the prospect of federal wildfire reform this year died in Congress, the hope for change in the way Washington State funds its firefighting efforts is still very much alive. State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark is lobbying aggressively (including at last month’s WFPA annual meeting) for his request for $24 million for firefighter training and coordinated firefighting command, including $6 million for thinning and forest restoration.

In recent weeks, Goldmark received support from the editorial boards at the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and the Vancouver Columbian. He also met with the news staffs at the Yakima Herald-Republic and the Ellensburg Daily Record.

An excerpt from the Herald-Republic’s story:

When lightning storms are predicted for the region, (Goldmark’s Department of Natural Resources) prepares by moving firefighters and equipment to areas forecast to be at risk.

But there’s no such forecast for human-caused fires, Goldmark said, so the state relies on local fire districts. More training and equipment for those typically volunteer firefighters is key to containing fires while they are still small, he said.

“I don’t want to have to call for crews from Alaska or Australia and New Zealand, by then it’s too late.” Goldmark said. “We need to build the local capacities so that we can respond in hours, not days.”

In addition to better prepared firefighters, Goldmark wants $6.3 million to help prepare forests and communities through fuel-reduction treatments and other precautions, such as planning evacuation routes and establishing defensible space around homes.

Even $6.3 million is small compared to the estimated need for restoration across hundreds of thousands of acres in Eastern Washington’s dense, stressed, fire-prone forests. But foresters say targeting such efforts, especially around communities, will lower the risks and costs of catastrophic fire in the future.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee came out with his own wildfire funding budget, but he asked the Legislature for $15 million, far short of Inslee’s request for $24 million. Last session, Goldmark made a similar request from the Legislature for $4.5 million and received $1.2 million.

But perhaps this year will be different. At a Senate committee hearing last month, Goldmark’s budget request received a positive bipartisan response.

Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, pressed Goldmark on whether he wasn’t being a bit too chintzy. Why only ask for $24 million, Chase inquired.

“You don’t build the capacity you need in a day or a season,” Goldmark said. “I want to be prudent about how I spend state dollars.”

Chase persisted: “I’m worried that we’re not putting enough money into this.”

Goldmark relented: “If you feel this isn’t enough, I encourage you to adjust it upwards if you see fit.”