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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

In Our View: State must provide region force for fighting fires

The Columbian
Published: April 9, 2024, 6:03am

Sooner or later, it is likely that a decision to close Larch Corrections Center in Clark County will prove costly to Southwest Washington residents. State officials should demonstrate more urgency in replacing the essential firefighting resources that long were based at the facility.

In October, the Washington Department of Corrections closed the minimum-security prison near Yacolt. As DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange said, “We have an abundance of minimum-security beds and need to refocus our resources to provide those in our care and custody with the mental health, educational, programming and health care access best suited to meet their needs.”

A focus on less-punitive sentencing, particularly for drug-related crimes, has reduced the state’s incarcerated population. If prisons are being underused, it is sensible to close some facilities.

Yet the decision to close Larch ignores the needs of surrounding communities and undervalues the center’s role in combating wildfires throughout the state. For decades, the facility had trained and deployed firefighters; not only did this provide a quick response to blazes in Southwest Washington, but it also provided skills — as well as a sense of dignity — for the incarcerated population.

With the removal of a nearby firefighting force, responses to wildfires in the region will be muted. “Speed is everything in the context of fire,” said Hilary Franz, the state’s commissioner of public lands. The Department of Natural Resources, which Franz oversees, manages the state’s largest firefighting force.

Franz also stresses that a changing climate is leading to more frequent and more powerful wildfires in Western Washington. While fires historically have been more common in Eastern Washington, they increasingly are becoming a threat to population centers west of the Cascades. Clark County’s Nakia Creek Fire in October 2022 burned 2,000 acres, forced evacuations and sent a smoky haze over populated areas.

“We have got to realize that fires are now going to be an annual experience,” Franz said.

Last year, crews from Larch Corrections Center responded to five large wildfires, including two in Clark County, one in Skamania County and one in Lewis County. The loss of the crew leads to doubts about a robust response as we enter the first fire season since the closure of the facility.

The Columbian reports that the Department of Corrections will continue to deploy about 250 prisoners to fight wildland fires, and that crews from the Olympic, Cedar Creek and Airway Heights corrections centers will be available in Southwest Washington. The problem: Those centers all are at least a two-hour drive from Clark County; Airway Heights, near Spokane, is a six-hour drive.

This ignores Franz’s admonition that speed is of the essence. And it ignores the need for a Southwest Washington base for a quick response.

During preparations to close Larch, initial plans called for firefighters to move to a reentry center in Longview. That plan was scuttled, reportedly because Department of Natural Resources officials requested more time to evaluate the proposal. A DNR spokesperson said recently: “It’s indeed an expensive proposition but also a logistical conundrum from both a paperwork and personnel perspective.”

Officials from both departments should work to figure out those logistics or devise effective alternatives. Having trained firefighting crews in the immediate area is critical for limiting damage from wildfires. The alternative could exact a heavy toll.

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