Based on legislative budgets released so far, a major increase in state funding for wildfire fighting and prevention looks likely. Washington's Commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, has requested an unprecedented $55 million dollars to fight and prevent wildfires. She argues this will save taxpayer money in the long run.
Franz says $55 million may sound like a lot, given all the competing priorities before lawmakers this year. It's also a steep hike compared to increases that only totalled about $2.5 million in the state Department of Natural Resource's wildfire budget over the past decade, she added.
But Franz says it’s less than the cost of one big wildfire DNR fought last year, such as the Twisp fire that burned for multiple weeks.
“We spend on average $154 million a year just fighting these firesm," Franz said. "If we had the resources and equipment up front, we can keep the cost down, we can keep the damage down and we can protect our public."
She says half of the $55 million the agency is seeking would go to forest health treatments. The other half would fund equipment and personnel, including two new helicopters and 30 full-time firefighters, who would work on forest health when the wildfires are out.
Franz says all this is needed because fire seasons are starting earlier and covering more ground than ever before.
“We’re still fighting these fires with the same amount of resource and capacity that we’ve had for the past ten years,” Franz said. “But our area that we fight fires is now the entire state and the amount of season that we’re fighting those fires is more than double what it used to be.”
Case in point: the 50 fires DNR had to respond to in March, brought on by an unusual winter heat wave. Of those, 49 were on the west side of the mountains.
Franz said DNR staffers with all kinds of other desk jobs had to put their normal work on hold to help out, because the seasonal force doesn’t normally start until mid-April at the earliest; they didn’t have enough trained up and ready.
The budget proposal is part of a 10-year plan at DNR to strengthen wildfire prevention and response. It would be funded, in part, through a new tax on property and casualty insurance premiums.
All three draft budgets get Franz much closer to her request than in past years. The governor’s budget allocates $21.8 million. The house has $27 million and the Senate budget released Friday gives DNR $38.4 million for wildfire fighting and prevention.