The good news is that this summer is expected to result in a normal wildfire season in Washington. The bad news is that this summer is expected to result in a normal wildfire season in Washington.
While strong winter rains and a decent snowpack have mitigated some of the drought conditions that plagued the state last year and contributed to devastating wildfires, the fact is that Washington and other regions are facing a new normal when it comes to the fires that are a rite of summer. Record-high temperatures are leading to dry conditions that provide fuel for flames, and that leads to questions about how long elected leaders can ignore the changing conditions.
In 2014, Washington battled the worst wildfire season in its history — a record that lasted for all of one year. The 2015 toll was 1 million acres burned, more than 300 homes destroyed, and the lives of three firefighters lost. A total of $347 million was spent in fighting those fires, spread among federal, state, and local jurisdictions. Earlier this year, the Legislature agreed to use $190 million from the state’s emergency fund to pay for last year’s wildfire damage.
Good idea. But the use of stop-gap, backfill measures to pay for wildfires after the fact is not sustainable — at either the federal or the state level. It is time for officials to embrace the reality of a changing climate and choose one of two courses of action: Stop fighting fires in wilderness areas, or provide permanent funding for fighting them.
Experts, including state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, say that ignoring wildfires until they endanger human lives or structures would have a devastating ecological impact. Instead, in January he wrote for The Seattle Times: “We need more firefighters. We need them positioned in the most fire-prone areas of the state. We need to provide grants to local fire districts to boost their capabilities. We need to train volunteers, National Guard troops, and local firefighters alongside professional Department of Natural Resources firefighters. We need experienced fire commanders to lead them, using modern radio equipment. We need to thin and maintain our forests, and help homeowners and communities clear vegetation to protect themselves from fire.”
Goldmark requested $25 million for such programs from lawmakers, who responded by funding $6.7 million of that request. But state lawmakers are not the only ones turning a blind eye to a situation that promises only to get worse. The federal government’s approach long has been to borrow money from forest-maintenance funds to pay for the previous year’s forest fires, ignoring the idea that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which has been championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in the Senate and is co-sponsored by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, in the House of Representatives, would alter this approach and is being considered in Congress. It should be viewed as an investment that would save money in the long run.
The essential part is for lawmakers to recognize that the wildfires of recent years represent a new reality. While many people debate whether or not climate change is caused by human activity, there is little room for suggesting that it does not exist and that it is resulting in tinder-dry forests. Those forests are bound to catch fire, and fighting those fires is a cost that must be borne.