WA lawmakers consider unified approach to wildfire prevention

Bipartisan proposal would create new DNR policies
Hilary Franz Dnr

“2020 is a year I never want to repeat.”

A lot of people share that emotion, but DNR Commissioner Hilary Franz has better reason than most. She’s responsible for Washington’s public lands, and had to respond to 1,600 fires in 2020. One of them burned the town of Malden to the ground within hours. Another took the life of a toddler as he and his parents were desperately trying to get to safety. All of them contributed to the choking haze of smoke that blanketed the state in early fall.

Franz has spent years working to improve Washington’s wildfire response. On Friday, she spoke to lawmakers about a new proposal to create a more regional response to wildfire prevention.

“The choice before us is a really simple one,” Franz said. “We can either continue to react in the face of smoke and flames – or we can be proactive and invest in the resources needed to give our forests, our communities, and our firefighters a fighting chance.”

This is one issue that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and both sides of the Cascades , can agree on.

“Quite frankly: our forests are burning,” says Rep. Larry Springer. He’s a Democrat who represents the Kirkland area – and one of HB 1168‘s primary sponsors.

“People are losing homes, livestock, livelihoods, and unfortunately, lives,” Springer told the committee today. “This is not going to stop by itself. And hoping that it does is pure fantasy.”

If anything, the threat of wildfires is spreading. The season is starting earlier, ending later, and stretching beyond Eastern Washington, to the traditionally evergreen side of the state.

Rep. Joel Kretz, a Republican from Wauconda, says the Federal government bears a significant share of the blame.

“Right now in the 7th district I would say our best neighbors are the tribes,” Kretz told other lawmakers. “The state…has made huge progress in the last 10 years. The Colville Forest is functioning really well. But we all know the elephant in the room is the Federal government lands that have just not been managed for whatever reason.”

HB 1168 is one piece of a 20-year plan to improve firefighting response, make communities more fire-resilient, and improve Washington’s forest health, so that wildfires have less chance to take hold in the first place. Kretz says he’s sponsoring the bill because it lays out a regional approach.

“Until we deal with [land management] in a coordinated fashion, where we’re going across landowner boundaries and find some of those solutions where we’re dealing with the whole landscape, this isn’t going to work.”

HB 1168 sets up wildfire prevention policies, but does not address funding. Franz says when it comes to paying for new equipment, more training, more outreach, and land management – the legislature simply has to find the money.
“This isn’t a question of whether we pay for wildfires or whether we pay for something else,” Franz says. “We are already paying.”

Because the Washington Legislature is holding its hearings virtually this year, to comply with COVID-19 restrictions, you can watch Friday’s entire hearing here.