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Wednesday, June 7, 2023
June 7, 2023

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In Our View: Wildfire bill approval will be investment in state

The Columbian

Overwhelming legislative support for House Bill 1168 demonstrates the depth of concern about wildfires in Washington.

“Washington is on the brink of breaking the cycle of inaction that has created our wildfire crisis,” said Hilary Franz, commissioner of public lands. “We are one step closer to protecting our communities, our forests and the air we breathe.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives by a 96-0 count (Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, had an excused absence), and passed the Senate, 49-0. It now returns to the House for consideration of amendments approved by the Senate.

In the process, lawmakers have recognized the threat posed by wildfires that are increasing in frequency and intensity. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the department headed by Franz, an average of 86,000 acres burned annually in Washington during the 1990s. The average has been 488,000 acres over the past five years, including 812,000 acres in 2020. For context: Clark County covers about 420,000 acres.

Climate change is contributing to the increase in fires, drying out forests and providing fuel. Inadequate forest management and years of neglectful federal policy also have created conditions for large, dangerous, costly blazes. Wildfires are an inevitable part of nature, but smart policy and adequate funding can help limit the damage.

“Lawmakers have agreed that Washington taxpayers can’t afford to keep losing $150 million each year to out-of-control wildfires,” Franz said. “And our state also can’t afford to keep losing jobs, natural resources and even entire towns to this crisis.”

House Bill 1168 will not eliminate that loss, but will move the state toward a more proactive approach to fires. It will create a dedicated fund of $125 million each biennium to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration and support community resilience:

• More than half the funding would go to remaking how the state responds to wildfires. Franz already oversees the state’s largest firefighting force, and the bill would add an additional 100 people.

• The legislation would expand the department’s air fleet with two new fixed-wing planes and would support advanced detection systems.

• It would accelerate the department’s 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan.

• And it would dedicate $20 million to help communities and homeowners better protect properties from wildfires.

In many ways, the measure is an investment in the state and its forests that will save money in the long run. “This bill would put funding out on the ground that helps put people back to work,” Franz said. “They’re removing the dead, dying and diseased trees, removing the small diameter, which is literally like kindling in a fireplace. They remove it. They get the product to the mill. They turn it into building product to help our housing crisis.”

Franz, who was elected in November to a second term, long has sought funding dedicated to preventing and fighting wildfires. She is an articulate and energetic advocate for her department, but the unanimity in the Legislature reflects the fact that HB 1168 was an easy sell; wildfires have become impossible to ignore throughout Washington.

Last summer’s fires created smoke that covered most of the state, including urban areas such as Vancouver and Seattle. It is all part of a changing landscape that calls for changes in the state’s response.