Editorials

Burned twice by wildfires, bill is due

An airplane tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire north of Twisp, Wash., Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. Massive wildfires expanding across arid Washington state have so overtaxed firefighters that the federal government declared an emergency and state officials took the unprecedented step of seeking volunteers to help fight the flames.
An airplane tanker drops fire retardant on a wildfire north of Twisp, Wash., Friday, Aug. 21, 2015. Massive wildfires expanding across arid Washington state have so overtaxed firefighters that the federal government declared an emergency and state officials took the unprecedented step of seeking volunteers to help fight the flames. AP

The wildfires of 2014 were the worst in Washington state history. One obvious lesson that year was that our state should ramp up its firefighting capacity to better respond to forest fires. Clearly our region’s climate was changing and our forests were becoming more diseased and tinder dry.

Our Legislature, caught in a financial and political squeeze over school funding in early 2015, didn’t heed the warnings Mother Nature was sending.

State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark asked for a modest $4.5 million to boost the number of Department of Natural Resources firefighters available, but he got only $1.2 million. That money didn’t come until July, when fires were already burning. Goldmark thinks a better fire-response capacity would have limited this year’s damage.

Instead, history repeated itself. The wildfires of 2015 are now the worst in Washington state history. They didn’t really stop burning in eastern areas of the state until mid-October, and many Eastern Washington residents may never get the smoke smell out of their memory.

Flames licked at the outskirts of cities like Chelan and too close to Wenatchee in the north-central state. Smoke choked highways. Evacuations were common.

More than 1 million acres of land burned in 59 fires.

Some 307 homes were destroyed.

Three firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service died.

Even old growth trees in the Olympic Peninsula’s rain forest caught fire — one more signal our climate is getting different.

The cost was huge for those who lost homes. The state’s cost overruns for fire-suppression is a record $137 million. The Legislature must cover that when it reconvenes in January.

What the future will bring is unknown, but the outlook isn’t great. That’s why we all should pay attention to the story Goldmark is telling those who’ll listen.

He says his agency relies on 400 seasonal firefighters and a “militia” of 700 more who can be called up on short notice from local departments. But too few well-trained, experienced firefighters are ready to go — boots on the ground — at the onset of fire season.

There’s actually a good chance that our wildfires will worsen over the next 20 years, Goldmark says. New strategies for managing lands can lower some risks longer term, but prevention and preparedness are essential.

To that end, Goldmark has assembled a legislative proposal that takes on the rising fire threat on many fronts. The cost is about $24.3 million per biennium on an ongoing basis. It includes:

▪ $6.3 million for thinning forests and removing dead trees that serve as explosive fuel and also for wildfire prevention education. Fall would have been a good time to do much of this work.

▪ About $3.2 million would place additional experienced firefighters on the ground in key places around the state. This could get the best talent out to fires within minutes or hours rather than days.

▪ About $6.1 million would help local fire districts modernize and improve equipment.

▪ $6.95 million would cover joint training among DNR crews, local fire districts, tribal firefighters, Washington National Guard soldiers, independent contractors and even the Army.

▪ $1.2 million for better communications gear, including radios.

▪ $443,000 for helicopters and airplanes. Additionally, Goldmark says innovations such as using drones to dump water in places where planes can’t fly — for lack of visibility — need to be explored.

Think of Goldmark’s plan as an escape route — short term and long. It may need revision but having a better plan is the start of a better response.

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