Washington spends an average of $153 million per year battling wildfires.
That figure represents only 9 percent of the full cost and doesn’t include the economic, environmental and public health toll inflicted on people and communities, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said.
“My belief is we can reduce that cost if we are investing up front and being proactive,” Franz said during a Friday interview with The Columbian. “Anytime you are in a reactive mode, it’s going to cost you more.”
Franz, first elected in 2016, spent the 2020 Legislature lobbying for a bill that would add a $5 surcharge to home and auto insurance policies. The cost to a homeowner with two vehicles would be $15 a year.
The bill would raise $62.5 million a year and create a dedicated revenue stream to better respond to wildfires, as well as improve forest health to reduce the number and severity of fires.
Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, sponsored House Bill 2413 at the request of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, signed onto the bill as a co-sponsor.
Franz said the bill was set to have a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee, but she requested it be pulled because of a lack of time during a 60-day session.
“It’s also an election year,” she said. “Revenue bills don’t do well.”
Franz, however, isn’t about to give up the fight.
“Our pitch is we are paying for it regardless,” she said. “The question is whether you are going to pay to react in the face of smoke and flames and risk to communities.”
Franz said she was at the Legislature every day during the session that wrapped up Thursday, laying the groundwork and building support.
“We chose not to skip a year in bringing this forward because we felt we have to keep beating the drum,” she said. “I don’t have the luxury of taking a year off and saying, ‘Sorry firefighters, I didn’t fight for you this year because we didn’t think there was a chance.’ ”
Franz unveiled her proposal in December to create the state’s first Wildfire Prevention and Preparedness Account. Washington fire chiefs and the American Lung Association back the plan, but not the insurance industry.
Franz said she will continue to build support during the interim before the 2021 session begins. She intends to show legislators disease-ravaged forests and allow them to see what an area looks like after a wildfire.
There are 2.7 million acres of forest with dead or dying trees east of the Cascades, she said. About half of the area is federal land, with privately owned forestland accounting for the next biggest chunk, she said.
Catastrophic fires in California and Australia have received widespread media coverage. In November 2018, Paradise, Calif., was devastated by the Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive fire in California history. It killed 86 people, destroyed 12,000 homes and displaced 26,000 residents.
Three Washington communities — Roslyn in Kittitas County, Twin Lakes in Ferry County and Cliffdell in Yakima County — actually have a greater fire risk than Paradise, Franz said.
In 2018, Washington had 1,850 fires, with 40 percent west of the Cascades, that burned 440,000 acres, she said. That year’s fire season started in April. Firefighters already were tired by June, even though the season didn’t peak until August.
With this year’s fire season only a few months away, firefighters don’t have adequate equipment to meet the threat, Franz said.
“Right now, I have 10 helicopters that all fought in the Vietnam War to cover the entire state,” she said.