So the Legislature, apparently not swayed by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz's dance moves with Smokey Bear, failed to approve a bill seeking $62.5 million for the Department of Natural Resources' newly formed Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account. The reason, no doubt, was lawmakers' aversion to taxing insurance policies, not a critique of Franz's boogying publicity stunt.
But, far better than nothing, legislators recognized the severity of previous wildfire seasons and the urgency to get ahead on preventing similar devastating damage this summer and fall by including $45.5 million in the 2019-21 operating budget for suppression and to fund forest health programs.
Everything's cool now, right? This time around, unlike the previous two smoky summers punctuated by monthslong blazes in the Cascades and throughout the state, the Department of Natural Resources may have the means to prevent fires and respond quickly when they erupt.
Not so fast. There is only so much that fire officials can do to prepare, especially when officials at the National Interagency Fire Center are reporting that the state has experienced a "moderate drought," meaning an early fire season in the Cascades and Okanogan region. West of the Cascades, the chance of wildfires is "above normal," the fire agency reported.
Because a significant threat remains, it behooves all of us in the Yakima Valley to take precautions to mitigate the dangers. You've heard the admonitions before, and they bear repeating, since officials report that 70 percent of the state's wildfires are human-caused.
Bear in mind that not all fires are due to gross negligence, such as lighting fireworks in dry sage, leaving campfires smoldering or deciding a windy day is the optimal time for a "controlled" burn of weeds on your rural property.
Homeowners need to take steps to develop "defensive space" and other measures. The Department of Natural Resources advises having a roof and deck made from nonflammable materials, clearing tinder-dry vegetation within 30 feet on all sides of your home, trimming trees on your property and, if you reside near the forest, thinning trees to about 20 feet apart.
Other recommendations culled from the DNR website (www.dnr.wa.gov/WildfirePrevention):
- Do not park vehicles in dry, grassy areas as residual heat from exhaust systems can ignite the dry grass.
- Be sure that recreational vehicles have operating spark arresters.
- Never walk away from a smoldering campfire. Put the fire out cold before leaving; if it's too hot to touch, it's too hot to leave.
- When working outside, keep a water hose, bucket or fire extinguisher on hand; use a nylon or plastic weed whacker line instead of metal; be careful not to set a hot tool down on dry grass or leaves; allow power engines to cool before refueling; and make sure the hot exhaust is kept away from dry grasses, weeds and shrubs.
- When traveling, know the wildfire risk at your destination.
One ominous note, buried on the bottom of the site and almost an afterthought: "DNR is required by state law to investigate and then prosecute those discovered to have caused a wildfire. Please do your part to ensure that person is never you."
We trust that most of you are already aware of these common-sense prevention measures, as well as the health consequences when wildfire smoke pervades the Yakima Valley. (A recent American Lung Association report ranked Yakima County's air quality the sixth-worst nationally for short-term spikes in particle pollution — due, of course, to wafting wildfire smoke.)
A recent poll from PEMCO Insurance found that Washingtonians now are more "woke" to wildfire threats. In the corporation's 2015 poll, 5 percent of state residents thought it would be "extremely likely" they would be directly impacted by wildfires. In 2019, the figure rose to 25 percent.
Will more cognizance, and vigilance, by citizens make a difference in the upcoming fire season? That's unclear. But we do know this: It can't hurt.