Washington Public Lands Commissioner stops in Kennewick to discuss wildfire fund proposal

A couple days after proposing a first-of-its-kind statewide wildfire fund, Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands made a stop in Kennewick on Wednesday to tour a local fire station and discuss the proposal.

Commissioner Hilary Franz announced the proposal in Seattle on Monday to create the Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Account. During her time in Tri-Cities, she was able to talk with Benton County Fire District #1 Chief Lonnie Click and get a tour of Station 160.

“Part of the revenue that is generated through this plan would go to fire protection resources that are not just at the state level but also local fire districts that see increasing amount of wildfires,” said Franz.

The proposal would create a $63 million dollar fund that would have two, specific focuses: restoring forest health and giving fire crews the resources needed to keep fires small. If approved, the fund would be the largest investment of this kind that Washington has ever made.

Some of the immediate funding priorities, guided by DNR’s Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, include 42 full time firefighters, more training for firefighters across the state and more resources to help property owners secure and protect their property.

“This would bring in more air assets for us to be able to have a stronger initial attack in all the corners where we’re seeing fire,” said Franz.

2018 was a record year for Washington state; DNR crews battled 1,850 wildfires and 440,000 acres burned. In 2019, crews battled 1,165 wildfires.

“Back in the mid-90s, the closest aircraft was in Deer Park, and there was just one,” said Chief Click. “So we’ve advanced beyond that and want to continue to improve the resource availability.”

Revenue for the wildfire fund would come from a surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums. For the average household, the cost is expected to be just over $1 per month.

“As we know in fires, what is most at risk besides people’s lives is their home and automobiles,” said Franz. “So it makes sense for that to be the vehicle for actually funding this.”

The proposal will be presented to lawmakers during Washington’s next legislative session.