Additional funding to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington should be regarded as an investment. Working to limit the damage of fires is more cost-effective than cleaning up and rebuilding after the fact, and it can help limit the psychological damage of having communities ravaged by blazes.
That is the impetus behind a legislative request (House Bill 1168) from Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands. Franz is seeking dedicated funding of $125 million for the next biennium to improve the state’s preparation and response to wildfires.
“Out-of-control wildfires now threaten families and communities on both sides of the Cascades,” Franz said. “We can’t afford to have another wildfire season as devastating as last year’s. We know what needs to be done to change the trajectory we’re on – we just need the political will and resources to make it happen.”
Generating political will is the most difficult part of the equation. At a time when the state is facing a pandemic-induced budget crunch, funding is likely to be scarce during the 180-day legislative session, which kicked off Monday.
Last year, a proposal to use a surtax on home insurance premiums for dedicated wildfire funding failed in the Legislature. This time, Franz is vowing to work with lawmakers to identify and secure funding sources.
She is the right person to lead the charge. Energetic and passionate about her job, Franz is an effective advocate for her department.
Still, it will be an uphill battle. The most recent state revenue forecast projects a $3.2 billion shortfall between now and mid-2023. With additional funding required to assist businesses and workers devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, and with Gov. Jay Inslee proposing increased spending, wildfire relief is unlikely to be high on the list of needs for lawmakers.
But dedicated funding makes sense for something that is a fact of life in Washington. Fueled by climate change and decades of inadequate forest management, wildfires have increased in frequency and intensity throughout the state. Last summer’s smoke-filled skies throughout Clark County demonstrated the reality of the situation.
“While the smoke has cleared and the weather has changed, we cannot ever forget the lives lost, the communities that burned, and those forever impacted by these catastrophic wildfires,” Franz said. “We have to act now to prevent it from happening again. We cannot allow the Evergreen State to turn charcoal black.”
Franz’s request would dedicate $81.7 million every two years to hire and train more firefighters, purchase additional airplanes and helicopters and improve leadership and fire detection systems. It also would add $31.4 million each biennium for forest restoration and $12.6 million to reduce fire fuel and create firebreaks.
Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland and lead sponsor of the legislation, says that fire prevention is popular with Washington residents. The difficulty is getting lawmakers to agree on funding sources: “Every single revenue proposal will have a detractor.”
That is understandable, as the Legislature is tasked with protecting taxpayer dollars. But a cost-benefit analysis will provide some insight.
Washington agencies spend an average of $150 million a year fighting wildfires, and that number is only increasing. Putting more money into preventing fires and quickly attacking them when they flare up would be a wise investment for the state.