Politics & Government

Washington state wildfires 6 times as destructive this year

This year’s record-setting season of wildfires in Washington has burned six times as many acres as usual, state officials said Wednesday.

As of the end of August, wildfires had burned a total of about 363,000 acres throughout the state, state forester Aaron Everett said. In the past five years, the average amount of acres burned per year was only about 61,000, he said.

About 256,000 acres burned this summer in a single group of fires: the Carlton complex fire in Okanogan County.

“It’s been a staggering year, and a great challenge,” Everett said.

The state has spent “north of $100 million” fighting this year’s wildfires, which have mainly raged in Central and Eastern Washington, Everett said. In four months, more than $81 million was spent by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) alone, he said. The agency’s annual budget for fire suppression is only about $25 million.

The estimated $100 million spent fighting the fires doesn’t include spending by federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, Everett said.

Everett gave the latest account of the fires’ destruction during a Wednesday meeting of Results Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee’s initiative to improve state government efficiency.

Also Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee renewed his request that the federal government assist individual families who lost their homes due to the fires in Okanogan County. In a letter to President Obama, Inslee said that 353 homes were destroyed or damaged in those fires, which was more than state officials previously estimated.

“Without the requested federal assistance, the long-term economic impacts from the fires will turn a disaster into a catastrophe for these communities,” Inslee wrote.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Inslee said that improving the health of the state’s forests and protecting landowners from the fires’ destruction is a high priority for him.

“I’ve seen these families, what they’ve gone through because of forest fires,” Inslee said.

“It’s just extremely painful to me to see what’s happening to our forests,” he added.

State officials are now turning their attention to preventing the fires from occurring, Everett said. He said about 3 million acres of forest in Washington could benefit from restoration efforts – such as thinning trees – to help prevent fires from spreading.

But within its current budget, the state only is able to work on about 141,000 acres per year, Everett said.

DNR asked the Legislature for about $20 million for forest restoration going into the state’s current two-year budget cycle, but the agency received only about $4 million, Everett said.

Next year, state officials plan to ask lawmakers for additional money to prevent forest fires, but they’ve yet to decide how large their request will be, he said.