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State of Washington public lands chief tries new tactic in push to prevent fire

by David Gutman, Seattle Times |

For at least the last three years, as Washington has seen some of the worst wildfires in recent memory, state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has pushed legislation to try to get a permanent funding source to fight and prevent fires.

She’s failed each time. The Legislature balked at a tax on property and casualty insurance and it balked at a surcharge on insurance premiums.

This year, Franz is back with a comprehensive plan to prevent, protect from and fight wildfires: Funding source TBA.

As the Legislature began what will be the first remote session in its history, Franz gazed out her Seattle window at the rain beating down.

“We’ve forgotten what happened just a few months before,” she said. “For years we have relied on luck and hope instead of investing in what’s needed to protect our communities and firefighters. Hope will not prevent wildfires, and luck doesn’t put them out.”

Franz’s legislation proposes $125 million in funding over the next two years that would be used in three broad categories: Improving forest health, to make them less vulnerable to catastrophic fires; helping communities boost their resilience to fires; and boosting the state’s capacity and equipment to fight fires.

Her failures to get the funding approved in previous legislative sessions spurred a change in approach this year — lay out the plan and rally support for it, and figure out the funding source later.

It could end up being a tax on insurance products, Franz said. Or a price on carbon. Or a combination of several sources.

“People are coming forward with ideas, and our goal is to work every single day with the Legislature to help identify the sources,” Franz said.

In the meantime, she’s continuing to beat the drum. She rattles off stats that tell the high-level story of the fires that loom over much of the state each summer and fall.

More than 600,000 acres burned in just 72 hours last September. That’s five times the amount that burned in all of 2019. Eighty percent of the town of Malden burned to the ground. Washington has 2.7 million acres of forest that are dying or sick, and thus more susceptible to fires (half of those acres are under federal control). Two million homes are at risk. Two of the past three years, smoke from fires has given Seattle the worst air quality in the world.

Franz, who was reelected in November, argues that the state is going to spend money fighting fires one way or another.

Over the past five years, which have included several of the worst fire seasons in the state’s history, Franz said we’ve spent an average of $153 million a year fighting fires.

“This isn’t a question of whether we pay for fires or something else,” she said. “The question is whether we’re going to pay to react in the face of smoke and fire, which always costs more, or whether we’re going to be proactive.”

Proactive measures include things like thinning forests, so there are fewer small trees and less brush to act as fuel, and helping communities in dangerous fire areas adopt better mitigation strategies.

The funding Franz seeks would also let the state Department of Natural Resources better service its Vietnam-era fleet of firefighting helicopters, purchase two planes to fight fires and hire more staff to fight fires and to train local firefighters.

As climate change continues to turbocharge the fire season on the entire West Coast, Franz said that the state’s requests for federal help are often met with replies that federal resources are already deployed elsewhere.

“We kept coming up empty,” she said. “So many states were in worse condition.”