As wildfires spread in Washington, state lawmakers put up the money to fight them


Washington will come up with the cash to pay for wildfires annually as the state braces for more hot seasons to come.

More than 58,000 wildfires razed some 10.3 million acres in the U.S. last year. Washington lost more than 200 homes and 800,000 acres to wildfires over five months from July to November. The towns of Malden and Pine City were virtually destroyed and an infant child died while fleeing with his family from Eastern Washington's Cold Springs Fire. State lawmakers have since promised to keep such disasters from happening again.

Under House Bill 1168, Washington would spend $125 million every biennium or $62.5 million per year in general fund money on emergency wildfire response. The bill also carves out $35 million in the next two years to help thin and manage 140,000 acres of public lands. Their goal is to restore 1.2 million acres over the next two decades.

HB 1168 passed both chambers with unanimous support and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for further action.

The bill follows past attempts in Olympia to boost wildfire funding with a surtax on home insurance premiums. One 2020 proposal aimed to raise $63 million per year in Washington with such a tax. Environmental groups have floated the idea in states like Oregon, which lost 1 million acres to wildfires in 2020.

If signed into law, the bill will add 100 wildland firefighters to the state's 1,300 full and part-time force. State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz says that could mean the difference between deploying a fire crew of 15 to put out a blaze or a fire crew of 50.

HB 1168 will also help pay for updating the state's aging air fleet. Ten out of its 11 firefighting planes, Franz says, date back to the Vietnam War. One was built in the early 2000s.

Franz, who pushed for the legislation, told The Center Square the state will need it more than ever.

“We did get a lot of rain and snow in the early part of the season,” Franz said. “Sometimes people think that means we're going to have a lighter fire season. When that snow and rain disappear quickly in the spring and we get a number of hot, warm, sunny days, it makes it right for fire season.”

Since 2010, Washington has seen 16,164 fires with an average of 1,438 fires per year. In 2020, the state broke annual records with 1,777 fires. This month, the state Department of Natural Resources reported it had responded to 91 fires in 2021 so far.

Most concerning to Franz and others is the increase of wildfires in wetter, colder Western Washington, where they're becoming more common. About 40% of the state's wildfires are burning west of the Cascade Mountains in the past 10 years.

The price tag of fighting fires in Washington has climbed too. A 2017 report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee pegged the state's wildfire fighting costs between 2010 and 2016 at almost half a billion dollars across 20 Washington counties.

Forecasts show 2021 is bound to be a dry year for Washington. On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported more than 12% of the Evergreen State were in severe drought while another 18% in Central Washington met moderate drought conditions.

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