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News / Northwest

Public Lands head Hilary Franz asks Washington Legislature to restore wildfire-prevention money

Last year, lawmakers approved $36 million cut in funding through 2025

By Isabella Breda, The Seattle Times
Published: January 21, 2024, 4:43pm

SEATTLE — Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz is urging state lawmakers this legislative session to restore cuts made to the agency’s wildfire preparedness and response programs.

Last year, lawmakers approved a $36 million reduction in the funding through 2025.

Franz and other Department of Natural Resources officials say that if the state doesn’t restore the funding, they may have to shrink or cut community assistance programs, reduce the amount of land treated with prescribed burns or thinning, or reduce staff.

Without state funding, the Department of Natural Resources relies on federal grants for these efforts to help prevent and reduce the effects of extreme wildfires that are becoming more common with climate change.

Last year, the Gray and Oregon Road fires torched 20,000 acres of grassland, timber and homes in less than two days in Spokane County, killing two people. In 2022, the Bolt Creek Fire burned nearly 15,000 acres of forest in Western Washington, closing Highway 2 and evacuating mountain towns largely unaccustomed to wildfires.

“Failing to restore this funding would be catastrophic for fire districts, forest health programs, and the counties which rely on the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program. … It would disproportionately affect rural and underserved communities,” Franz wrote in an email to The Seattle Times. “The Legislature must uphold the unanimous promise it made to current and future Washington residents. Otherwise, we might need a bit more luck in future fire seasons.”

In 2021, the Legislature pledged $500 million through 2029 for wildfire preparedness and response. The Department of Natural Resources used some of the money to help property owners reduce fuels for fires on their lands and to treat thousands of acres with prescribed burns.

It also paid for new technology, including cameras and aircraft, to more quickly spot and respond to fires in hard-to-reach areas. It helped rural fire districts, often the first line of defense when a fire ignites, replace aging trucks and allowed the state to hire more permanent firefighters.

DNR officials say their funding was cut because money from the previous budget was earmarked for contracts but not yet spent. The agency provided records indicating it has largely met, and in some cases exceeded, targets set by lawmakers, including the hiring of 60 permanent firefighters.

“I’m proud to say we have held up our end of the bargain,” Franz said.

This short legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed increasing funding for the programs to $108.9 million, up from the $89.8 million lawmakers OK’d last session. Some lawmakers have begun advocating for the full funding to be restored.

“One of the things that I will be requesting for this year’s budget is that $25 million or so be returned so that we can continue to build on the unprecedented success that (this legislation) has turned out to be,” said Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat.

Kelly Finnell spotted billowing smoke outside her front door in August. She and her wife, Mary, had nearly finished packing up their motor home to head out of town when they got the notice to leave right away.

The Gray Fire was bearing down on their neighborhood after four days of near triple-digit temperatures, high winds and low humidity. This blaze and the Oregon Road Fire destroyed an estimated 369 homes and damaged another 447.

But the Finnell family’s home was spared.

Moving back to the east side of the state in 2021, Kelly Finnell knew fire was a matter of when, not if. Homes here in what fire officials call the wildland urban interface — where human development has sprawled into wilderness rich with fuels for fire — are among the most vulnerable.

Across the U.S., the number of homes in these areas grew by about 50 percent from 1990 to 2020, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In Washington, the wildland urban interface was one of the fastest-growing land types from 1990 to 2010, according to a 2018 study.

Funding from the Legislature allowed DNR to expand existing community programs. The Finnells used a cost-sharing program that provided them with plans to thin and clear their property, including removing low-hanging limbs, brush and crowded saplings.

The Finnells are convinced the work completed early last year saved their home.

Since 2021, about 2,100 homeowners have signed up for the state’s Wildfire Ready Neighbors program.

“The landowners that we work with have what I call sweat equity in those projects — they have an investment,” said Steve Harris, a regulation and resilience assistant manager for DNR’s northeast region.

The state works with anyone, from families hoping to protect their homes to landowners with a couple hundred acres to manage, Harris said.

Reducing fuels can help fire crews more easily defend structures like homes and outbuildings from fire, but alone it cannot safeguard communities.

“The bill is recognizing that preparing, responding and recovering from wildfire is an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Rep. Springer, who sponsored the 2021 bill. It’s not just creating land that is defensible in a fire, also known as defensible space, but reducing available fuels through thinning and prescribed burns, he said.

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While thinning can reduce fuels, burning also provides ecological benefits not provided by thinning alone, like creating growing space and receptive seedbeds, promoting germination of seeds stored in soil and increasing nutrient availability.

Prescribed fire has a long, rich tradition rooted in Indigenous ecological knowledge, but a University of Idaho study found there was no significant increase in the acreage of prescribed burning in the Western U.S. from 1998 to 2018, as wildfires became increasingly frequent and intense.

In 2022, the Department of Natural Resources ended a 15-year pause of prescribed burning across landscapes on state trust lands. Since then, the state has torched more than 4,000 acres through these fires and the burning of forest debris piles, in part through state funding.

The funding allowed the Department of Natural Resources to expand these fire-prevention programs into Western Washington, which for the first time in history last season saw more fires than the parts of Washington east of the Cascades.

“In all of these cases, (the legislation) really provided the opportunity to really try to take control of our own fate when it comes to wildland fire and forest health,” state forester George Geissler said.

The state money has also allowed small rural fire districts access to refurbished trucks that can get into rugged landscapes and hold more water.

“The local districts are pretty much the first responders to the majority of the fires across the state of Washington,” said Dan Boyle, fire district assistance specialist for the Department of Natural Resources. “It’s a great investment for the DNR, to make sure that these districts, especially the lower-funded districts, have these assets to meet that role.”

Before the Legislature provided funds, DNR could offer 50 percent matching grants for districts seeking newer vehicles or equipment. The bill has allowed the department to require only a 10 percent match or no match in some cases.

But the extreme fire behavior, as seen in the two Spokane County fires last year, has become more common in recent years, said Geissler, a longtime firefighter. Now there’s rarely a time when one piece of land in Washington isn’t in perennial drought conditions.

Commissioner Franz largely credits her agency’s ability to quickly detect and respond to fires and new investments in forest health treatments for the relatively mild fire season the state saw in 2023.

“I implore my budget-writing friends: Don’t abandon us now,” Rep. Springer said. “Folks are making progress. Don’t slow down now.”

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