Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is urging the Washington State Legislature to commit dedicated state resources into wildfire prevention and forest health efforts.
Last week, along with primary bill sponsor Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), Franz introduced legislation that would create an account to support wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience efforts throughout the state. In addition to the account, HB 1168 includes state funding of $125 million each biennium.
Said Franz, who also leads the state’s wildfire fighting force:
“Out-of-control wildfires now threaten families and communities on both sides of the Cascades. 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. While the smoke has cleared and the weather has changed, we cannot ever forget the lives lost, the communities that burned, and those forever impacted by these catastrophic wildfires. We have to act now to prevent it from happening again. We cannot allow the Evergreen State to turn charcoal black.”
Supporters of HB 1168 say a dedicated funding source to address wildfires and the underlying causes of the increasingly severe blazes is critical as Washington state experiences hotter, drier summers, longer fire seasons and an accumulation of forest fuel from decades of forest fire suppression policies. According to the Department of Natural Resources, 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.
During the debut of the legislation, Commission Franz emphasized that HB 1168 enjoys the support from a coalition of diverse stakeholders, local jurisdictions, health experts and forestry industry leaders. Crafting of the legislation included input from firefighters, fire chiefs, tribes, environmentalists, public health advocates and forest products companies.
“This bill protects Washington’s forests by fully funding the work needed to keep them healthy and to prevent out-of-control wildfires,” said Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protect Association. “We can support sustainable forestry, grow our workforce, and protect the forests that are the foundation of our private and public lands.”
The legislation also could help the state save money in the long run. The state spends on average nearly $150 million in wildfire-related costs across state agencies each year. In 2015 alone, firefighting costs were more than $342 million.
Proponents of the bill say that improving forest health benefits the entire state. For two of the last three years, Washington has experienced the worst air quality in the world due to wildfire.
The 2020 wildfire season was among the most devastating seasons on record, according to the Department Natural Resources’ wildfire data. Wildfires created large-scale destruction, claiming a life, destroying homes, creating unhealthy air conditions and blanketing the sky with smoky haze.
“Our forests are burning, our towns are burning, and Washingtonians are losing homes and livelihoods,” said Rep. Springer. “This is not going to end by itself. Hoping it will is a fantasy.”
Other HB 1168 sponsors include Reps. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda), Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Seattle), Dan Griffey(R-Allyn), Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane), Debra Lekanoff (D-Bow), Bill Ramos (D-Issaquah), Lisa Callan(D-Issaquah), Kirsten Harris-Talley (D-Seattle), Tom Dent (R-Moses Lake), Mark Klicker (R-Walla Walla).