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Senator Cantwell, Fire Chiefs Testify For Better Wildfire Response

Ben Brooks
An airtanker plane dropping fire retardant over the advancing Chelan Butte wildfire (part of the 2015 Chelan Complex fire) in Chelan, Washington.

Washington state’s worst-ever wildfire season took center stage once again in Washington, D.C.

Two local fire officials testified before the U.S. Senate’s Energy & Natural Resources Committee Tuesday, appealing to lawmakers for more funding for fire suppression and preparedness.

Chelan County District 1 Fire Chief Mike Burnett and Jon Wyss, chairman of the Okanogan County Long-Term Recovery Group both said local communities need more authority to, for example, more quickly call in air support that the federal government would pay for.

They were asked to testify by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, who also shared with the committee some of the information gathered at multiple field hearings this summer.

Cantwell arranged the hearings after the massive Carlton Complex fires of 2014, bringing together experts to talk about what the federal government could do better to help local communities. Cantwell says it turned out 2015 would bring an even more dramatic wildfire season.

“Almost one million acres in my state burned in about a month. That’s an area about the size of Delaware," Cantwell said. "So in addition to severe economic loss to the timber industry, the recreational economy, tribes, the firefighters of Washington state who suffered a tragic loss, these impacts are unbelievable.”

Three firefighters were killed and one badly burned in a blaze near Twisp.

Cantwell is working on a bi-partisan bill with committee chairman, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, that would improve communities’ preparation for fires and address fire prevention funding issues.