Record fire­fight­ing bud­get sought by pub­lic lands chief

The News Tribune - - Local - BY KIP HILL Spokane Spokesman-Re­view

For the state’s Pub­lic Lands Com­mis­sioner Hi­lary Franz, the smoky air that con­tin­ues to choke the In­land North­west each sum­mer is a sign that Wash­ing­ton will have to bat­tle wild­fires in­de­pen­dently in the fu­ture.

“We tried to find ad­di­tional air sup­port out­side,” Franz said in an in­ter­view this week, after a 2018 wild­fire sea­son that re­sulted in more than 1,850 blazes in Wash­ing­ton, the most in the state’s his­tory. “We used ev­ery­thing we had up in Wash­ing­ton state, and we went out­side. And be­cause of Cal­i­for­nia, Colorado, Ore­gon and other states al­ready on fire, they had al­ready grabbed ev­ery­thing that was avail­able.”

That’s why Franz is ask­ing the state Leg­is­la­ture, as part of its 2019 bud­get, to ded­i­cate $55 mil­lion to beef up the De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­source’s fire re­sponse team and fund pro­grams to thin tim­ber most sus­cep­ti­ble to scorch- ing. It’s the most the agency says it has ever re­quested to fight fires, and would rep­re­sent a dou­bling of the state’s in­vest­ment in fire sup­pres­sion from pre­vi­ous bud­get cy­cles.

Franz, en­ter­ing her third year as the elected head of the de­part­ment and care­taker of mil­lions of acres of pub­lic lands in Wash­ing­ton, said the re­quest is a good in­vest­ment, as the state has seen the costs of bat­tling blazes rise due to stretched re­sources and more wide­spread fires that reach west of the Cas­cades.

“It’s sort of that con­text that, money up front is a lot less than pay­ing for it on the back end,” she said. “A 50,000-acre fire is a lot more costly to sup­press than a 100-acre fire.”

Franz said state of­fi­cials did a good job in 2018 of lim­it­ing fire spread, de­spite the record-set­ting num­ber of fire starts. While there were 1,850 fire starts this year re­ported, those flames burned 350,000 acres. Com­pare that to the fire sea­son of 2015, when there were fewer blazes but, spurred by the mas­sive Okanogan Com­plex fire in north-cen­tral Wash­ing­ton, more than a mil­lion acres burned and a fed­eral state of emer­gency was de­clared.

Fight­ing those fires, even if they’re smaller, can still prove ex­pen­sive.

Franz said one fire alone in the Twisp area this sum­mer cost $60 mil­lion in state re­sources to fight. The money she’s re­quest­ing would pro­vide fund­ing to hire an ad­di­tional 30 full-time fire­fight­ers for the de­part­ment, add two fire­fight­ing he­li­copters to the agency’s fleet of seven and a ded­i­cated $17 mil­lion to pay for forestry health projects iden­ti­fied in a plan call­ing for thin­ning in the por­tions of east­ern and cen­tral Wash­ing­ton iden­ti­fied as high risk for wild­fires.

The re­quest comes as the state Leg­is­la­ture be­gins an­other po­ten­tially lengthy bud­get process in this ses­sion, with law­mak­ers and Gov. Jay Inslee tack­ling sev­eral en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial ser­vices is­sues after spend­ing the pre­vi­ous bud­get cy­cle in talks over ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing. A poll of 502 reg­is­tered vot­ers in Wash- in­g­ton state con­ducted by the El­way Re­search firm and Cross­cut at the end of De­cem­ber found there was sig­nif­i­cant sup­port for the Leg­is­la­ture to ad­dress wild­fires, but not as much sup­port as “fix­ing the state’s men­tal health sys­tem.”

“We know that through­out Wash­ing­ton state, we are fac­ing enor­mous chal­lenges that are very costly,” Franz said. “We’ve got ed­u­ca­tion, we’ve got men­tal health, we’ve got af­ford­able hous­ing, we’ve got in­fra­struc­ture. All of those are com­pet­ing needs, and they’re sig­nif­i­cant needs.”

“What peo­ple may not be aware of is how much it ac­tu­ally costs us to fight fires,” she con­tin­ued, say­ing the state spends up­wards of $150 mil­lion a year fight­ing fires, far ex­ceed­ing her bud­get re­quest. The state has also de­vel­oped a 20-year plan for por­tions of the state east of the Cas­cades that calls for the treat­ment of 1.25 mil­lion acres of forest­land that has been pri­or­i­tized based on prox­im­ity to pop­u­la­tion cen­ters.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, the Spokane Demo­crat who chairs the state House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tive’s Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee, said it’s still too early to say for cer­tain how much of Franz’s re­quest could be in­cluded in the state’s bud­get. But, he said, Franz – who is also a Demo­crat – has earned high marks from state law­mak­ers and lo­cal fire of­fi­cials for her re­spon­sive­ness to their con­cerns.

“This one is a big one be­cause it’s so ob­vi­ous,” Ormsby said, re­fer­ring to the wild­fire ef­forts. “You can see the fires and smell the smoke … I can’t tell you how that trans­lates into pol­icy and bud­gets.”

Sen. Mark Schoes­ller, the Ritzville Repub­li­can who is lead­ing the mi­nor­ity party in the Se­nate, said he hadn’t yet re­viewed the full bud­get re­quest from the de­part­ment, though he noted it was “a re­ally big to­tal.”

“I think we should take a hard look at it,” Schoesler said, not­ing that Gov. Jay Inslee is keenly in­ter­ested in the re­duc­tion of car­bon emis­sions and that fight­ing wide­spread wild­fires could fur­ther that goal while also im­prov­ing ru­ral economies.

AP file

Pub­lic Lands Com­mis­sioner Hi­lary Franz is ask­ing the Leg­is­la­ture to ded­i­cate $55 mil­lion in the 2019 bud­get for the De­part­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­source’s fire re­sponse team.

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