Hilary Franz

Hilary Franz

Commissioner of Public Lands

She doesn’t look like someone you’d call if a fire was bearing down on your town.

Then you hear her speak, daring any fire to come between her and the 6 million or so acres of public land she is responsible for safeguarding.

Her name is Hilary Franz and she is the commissioner of Washington state’s public lands. She sat across the conference room table from me a couple of weeks ago on a media tour intended to bring awareness to the 2019 fire season.

Up until a recent trip to Olympia, I hadn’t paid much attention to who the commissioner of public lands was, or what that elected official did all day. But ... according to her website ... the job makes running a newspaper sound like child’s play.

“The commissioner of public lands administers the State Department of Natural Resources and its 1,500 employees, directs management of 5.6 million acres of state owned land, supervises the Department of Natural Resources wildlife protection on millions of acres of state and private forest lands and chairs the state Board of Natural Resources and Forest Practices Board.”

When she’s not doing that she’s raising three sons.

Prior to Franz’s visit I had lunch with state Sen. Brad Hawkins and asked about her. He said she was one of the brightest people in state government today and that he wouldn’t be surprised if she was governor some day.

High praise from a young Republican lawmaker who is impressive in his own right. Franz — a Democrat — said she hasn’t ruled out a run for governor in 2020.

She was elected to her current post in 2016. She’d previously served on the Bainbridge Island City Council, where her family operates a third-generation farm. She is also a lawyer.

Cooperation is the key to fighting fires, since fires don’t respect boundaries between state, federal and private lands. Franz calls her strategy, “All hands, all lands” and has worked to bring the various agencies together.

Part of that effort includes joint training. “We have 1,000 or so firefighters from 20 different agencies training together,” she said. “We need to get past the turf issues that sometimes keep agencies from responding as effectively as possible.”

Resources have also been an issue. Franz asked for $55 million in the new budget and received $50 million, tucked within the state’s $52.4 billion two-year spending plan just signed by the governor.

Half of that $52.4 billion state budget will go to schools, which will see an additional $4.2 billion over the next two years, with most of that going to teacher salaries.

Up until this past summer, Washington’s fires have mostly been relegated to the east side of the state. “The west side really hadn’t gotten the smoke up until last summer,” Franz said. “It was disconnected from what the other side of the state has been dealing with for years now.”

That could explain the lack of attention in Olympia, where funding for firefighting has taken a back seat to schools, ferries, orcas and the homeless. The governor said the budget, “puts people first,” but people need to be able to breathe when they go outside in the summer.

Franz will use $17 million on forest health plans and the rest to protection, adding 30 more firefighters. She will have 1,500 firefighters at her disposal this summer, most of them seasonal.

And she won’t hesitate to send in her version of the Air Force, which consists of 14 helicopters and six single engine tankers. The best way to fight a fire, said Franz, is to attack the heck out of it before it spreads. That means pushing through the red tape that allows small fires to become big ones.

The bad news is the fires are coming this summer, no matter what we do. The good news is that Washington’s public lands have a commissioner who stands ready to lead a well prepared army into battle.

Jeff Ackerman can be reached at 665-1160 or at ackerman@wenatcheeworld.com.

Jeff Ackerman: (509)665-1160

ackerman@wenatcheeworld.com