Politics & Government

Not enough money for stopping wildfires early, lands commissioner says

State lawmakers didn’t hesitate to pay $70 million to cover the costs of fighting last year’s wildfires after the flames died down.

But now, as wildfires again rage across the state, the head of the state’s chief wildland firefighting agency says he’s frustrated the Legislature wouldn’t pay a fraction of that amount to help stop new fires from getting out of control.

Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said he got less than one-third of what he requested for more fire-response crews in the state’s new two-year budget, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law late Tuesday.

“The Legislature has left me in a precarious position, with what I view as insufficient resources to meet the threat,” said Goldmark, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources. “Even in the face of (the current fires) and the threat to public safety that those fires contained, the Legislature didn’t seem to care about the public’s safety at all.”

Severe wildfires began burning unseasonably early this year, while the Legislature was in session in Olympia. Goldmark said he’s worried more will break out over the July 4th weekend due to a combination of fireworks and strong winds.

While firefighters have been able to mostly contain the Sleepy Hollow fire that burned through Wenatchee this week, as well as the Monument Hill fire that burned near Quincy, a large fire is still spreading in Olympic National Park. On Friday, the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center reported more than a half-dozen large fires active throughout the state.

And it’s not something state officials didn’t see coming. Fires scorched more than 400,000 acres in 2014, the most destructive fire season in state history.

Following that record-setting fire season, Goldmark requested more funding from the Legislature to staff additional fire engines and helicopter crews — about $4.5 million more than the agency received in its previous two-year budget for fire response. Yet in the state’s new $38.2 billion spending plan, Goldmark got only $1.2 million of the extra funding he requested.

Meanwhile, with a noncontroversial vote earlier in the year, lawmakers passed a supplemental budget that included more than $70 million to cover firefighting costs from 2014.

On Thursday, Goldmark said he’s “been trying to get the Legislature to make a minor investment now to prevent a large bill later.”

“It’s the money, but it’s also the threat to people and people’s property,” Goldmark said. “I’m very frustrated that the Legislature doesn’t understand their role in protecting the public, and that a small investment now can prevent that public and private damage.”

While Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats originally proposed funding about $2.5 million of DNR’s requested $4.5 million increase, Senate Republicans didn’t include any extra fire response money in their initial budget proposals.

Rep. Ross Hunter, the chief budget writer in the Democratic-led House, said the added fire response funding was reduced to $1.2 million as part of the deal worked out with the Republican Senate majority.

Those kinds of decisions came about partly because Republicans wouldn’t agree to raise much new revenue, Hunter said.

While House leaders at first advocated more than $1 billion in new tax revenue to support higher levels of spending across state government, Senate Republicans opposed those tax measures and ultimately kept them out of the final budget.

“I would have loved to have funded that higher. I would have loved to have funded a lot of other things higher,” said Hunter, D-Medina, of the wildfire response money. “In the end, without enough revenue to support everything, you end up spending less in many places than you would like.”

Hunter’s budget-writing counterpart in the Senate, Republican Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, didn’t return a call for comment.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he too would have liked to include more money for wildfire response, but couldn’t see how to pay for that and other spending priorities without new taxes.

He said that if the increased wildfire response funding was truly important to House Democrats, they would have pushed for it harder during negotiations. Senate Republicans agreed to boost spending in other areas, such as the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, after insistence from Democrats, he said.

“If it was as important to them as TANF funding, we probably would have had to come to their position,” Schoesler said.

Schoesler added that most of this year’s severe fires started after the majority of the budget had been written.

Still, some lawmakers — including Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee — said they were surprised the extra funding wasn’t included after fires devastated Central Washington last year.

Parlette, who spoke to a reporter Thursday after touring the damage from the Sleepy Hollow fire in her district, said the low level of funding “was a total shock.”

While many government agencies had funding cuts during the Great Recession, “I truly think that our Natural Resources Department is really taking more of the cuts than they deserve,” Parlette said.

DNR also got about half what it requested for forest health treatments, such as thinning forests and planting fire-resistant trees to make them less likely to burn. That $10 million is included in the state capital budget that pays for construction and building projects.

While that allotment is still more than the $4 million that DNR got for forest treatments during the previous two years, the Legislature has yet to pass a bond bill that would finalize the capital budget.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said the state is trying to fight the growing problem of wildfires on all fronts, including through prevention methods such as forest thinning.

She noted that even though Goldmark didn’t get as much extra fire response money as he requested, his department still received a modest increase.

“I think it’s good we’re adding money to that pot,” Smith said. “It’s not enough, and I think our side would agree we do need more. But as long as we’re moving in the right direction, that’s a good thing.”

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