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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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In Our View: Wildfire preparation can protect health, lives

The Columbian

In recent years, Clark County residents often have felt the impact of wildfires. Even those who have not been directly affected by the possibility of evacuation orders have experienced the fallout from large blazes.

On multiple occasions — including in September, during the Nakia Creek Fire northeast of Camas and Washougal — smoke has choked urban areas, providing a reminder of the power of wildfires and the health concerns they can generate.

Yet while the smoke from distant fires have irritated our eyes and throats, for the most part Clark County residents have been fortunate. Many other cities throughout the state deal with wildfires on a much more personal level.

“For days, smoke choked our lungs, forced our kids inside, and threatened the health of at-risk populations,” Hilary Franz, the state’s public lands commissioner, said of last year’s fires. “While we continue to make progress in reducing the threat of wildfire, we must also prioritize how we mitigate and prepare for the impacts of wildfire and smoke. We must take steps to reduce the impacts of wildfire to our homes and communities, on both sides of the state.”

Franz is supporting a bill called “Cascading Impacts of Wildfire” in this year’s Legislature, seeking to provide funding for services that help communities prepare for the inevitability of wildfires. Companion bills in the House and Senate have drawn bipartisan sponsorship and warrant attention from all lawmakers.

As reported by The Bellingham Herald, the bills ask for $12.8 million over the next two years with the goal of preparing communities for fires and increasing their resilience to the risks posed by smoke. The legislation also targets post-wildfire dangers such as landslides and debris flow.

Franz has headed the Department of Natural Resources since 2017, and she has effectively advocated for increased spending on wildfire prevention and response. While the position — which is elected statewide — also involves generating revenue from Washington’s public lands and managing the state’s broad resources, dealing with wildfires is perhaps the most visible aspect of her work.

As Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, said: “We have DNR doing some great work out there fighting fires, but I also think people need to better understand the risk of fires. Preparation for disaster before the disaster occurs is super, super important. So let’s do some of that at the statewide level.”

The need is evident. As the Clark County Public Health website explains: “When air is smoky, even healthy people can have symptoms or health problems. Symptoms can range from minor irritation to life-threatening complications.” And during the Bolt Creek Fire last year in King County, Seattle reportedly had the worst air quality of any city in the world.

The risk of wildfires is not limited to the east side of the Cascades these days. Climate change is helping to extend the threat throughout the state.

The proposed legislation would establish a statewide smoke monitoring team and predictive services team. Monitoring equipment would provide smoke exposure forecasts, and resources would be provided for communities with high smoke risk.

Of course, preventing and limiting fires is the best way to mitigate their threat. But some fires are inevitable in The Evergreen State. Helping communities prepare for that would be a valuable public service.