Wednesday, November 30, 2022
Nov. 30, 2022

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In Our View: Wildfire prevention, preparedness vital to state

The Columbian
Published:

Even in the cold and rain of January, wildfires remain a hot topic in Washington. Smoke and haze from distant fires in recent years have reminded even city dwellers in Clark County of the vast impact the traditional late-summer blazes have throughout the state.

An effective plan for combating a growing wildfire threat will require diligent planning, foresight and, yes, money. With climate change exacerbating the scope of the annual fire season and with population increases bringing more people into the potential path of fires, Washington must be proactive in developing prevention and suppression methods.

Last week, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz released a 10-year plan to strengthen the state’s response to the threat. This was part of her $55 million budget request as the Legislature kicked off its 2019 session.

State Sen. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, said wildfires should be a top priority for lawmakers: “I believe that this issue of wildfires and wildfire suppression is as important to the state of Washington as education, as mental health, as other infrastructure issues.” Chief Dave LaFave of Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association, said: “We can’t stop fires from occurring, but we can stop doing the same things we’ve always done in dealing with them.”

Therein lies the importance of bold strategies. Last year, Franz said, the Department of Natural Resources that she oversees responded to more than 1,850 wildfires. Between 2013 and 2018, an average of $153 million a year in state and federal money was spent annually fighting wildfires in Washington, a span that included the two most devastating fire years in state history. Between 2014 and 2015, more than 2,300 square miles were burned in fires that destroyed hundreds of homes.

One step toward reducing the threat will be improved forest management. Franz’s department has developed a 20-year Forest Health Plan calling for the restoration of 1.25 million acres of unhealthy forests on federal, state, tribal and private lands. Such a plan is an investment in prevention, as healthy forests are less likely to burn.

Congress took a major step toward wildfire prevention last year by approving an end to the practice of fire borrowing. For years, money intended for forest management was used for fire suppression; that resulted in poor forest maintenance that would lead to more intense wildfires the following year … and so on. Providing more predictable funding for the removal of fuel from the forests should make it easier to reduce the impact of fires before they even start.

But the burden of preventing and suppressing wildfires falls mostly to the states, which is why Franz’s budget request deserves serious consideration from the Legislature.

The plan would add 30 full-time and 40 seasonal firefighters for the Department of Natural Resources, and would add two helicopters to the department’s fleet. It also would create a firefighting training academy that could be used by various government agencies. Notably, the current partial shutdown of the federal government could prove costly during fire season, as some training programs already have been canceled. As Franz wrote: “Unless we increase up-front investments in wildfire preparedness and the pace at which we restore the health of our forests, wildfires will continue to intensify.”

When it comes to wildfires, we can invest in prevention now, or pay more for suppression later.

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