The idea Seattle summer’s “new normal” will be marked by choking haze from wildfires must be resisted, not grimly accepted. Our annual plague of wildfires requires thoughtful investment in fire prevention to slow the rise of out-of-control forest blazes.
Washington’s wildfire-fighting bill has escalated dramatically. For each of the last five years, the state’s average wildfire-fighting bill has come to $153 million, and the average acreage burned each year is more than double what it was a decade ago.
At last, the Legislature has attempted to stem this worsening trend by making the largest budget allocation for wildfire combat in state history. About $50 million over the next two years will provide more and better-trained firefighters, a pair of new firefighting helicopters, and ramped-up work to improve forest health by removing dead and sick trees that fuel wildfires.
Paired with federal efforts, those investments are a good start to beating back the worsening crisis. Federal reforms backed by Sen. Maria Cantwell in 2018 to free up $100 million for forest maintenance and a new law this year to improve firefighting technology with infrared-sensing drones and GPS for all firefighters were long needed.
Still, even these drastic investments fall short of what is required.
For one, the torture of Washington lungs from wildfire smoke can’t be eliminated solely through action within the state’s borders. The last two summers have brought smoke clouds pouring in from across state and national boundaries.
Governments across the American and Canadian west must invest in forest-fire prevention and firefighting on a scale commensurate with the magnitude of this crisis. Worsening climate change has made woodlands from British Columbia and Alberta to California a regionwide problem that only unprecedented coordination can solve.
Here in Washington, state leaders must acknowledge that severe wildfires are now perennial and create a systematic method of addressing them. The current system of negotiating wildfire-relief funding every budget cycle hinders the capacity to enact long-range improvement. The onslaught of climate change leaves forest conditions on both sides of the Cascades too dire to remain a bargaining chip of budget talks.
The budgeting cycle properly handles topics for which spending must be prioritized. It fails to account for the outsize bill that comes due after the state is caught unprepared by predictable wildfires. Stable funding to prevent catastrophic wildfires from sparking must be established.
In this recent legislative session, a Senate bill to boost the state’s tax on property and personal insurance for a dedicated wildfire fund of about $60 million a year failed.
Department of Natural Resources Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz needs to demonstrate her department uses the investment wisely and make a case that any new tax is needed.
“We can get our summers back,” Commissioner Franz said.
According to her agency, Washington has 2.7 million acres of forest that need to get healthy, fast. Franz and the Legislature must find a viable path to make that happen.