Smoke from the Okanogan Complex Fire in Washington state clouds the landscape in 2015, when the state had its worst wildfire season on record. (U.S. Forest Service photo)

State leaders, citizens prepare for upcoming wildfire season

Inslee applauds team effort during trip to Eastern Washington

SPOKANE COUNTY— Gov. Jay Inslee shared some good news and some bad news about the risk of wildfires during his recent trip to Eastern Washington.

The bad news is that “our forests are time bombs right now,” he said. They are more susceptible to large wildfires because of beetle kill, dense timber and drier conditions brought on by climate change.

The good news, however, is that a strong effort has grown among state agencies and local leaders to prevent the devastating wildfire seasons seen in 2014 and 2015. The 2015 season was the worst in Washington state history. In addition to killing three firefighters, the fires burned more than 1 million acres; displaced thousands of people, livestock and other animals; and cost the state more than $100 million to extinguish.

Surveying the wildlands outside Spokane on Tuesday with Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, Inslee was briefed on steps the state has taken to prepare for an increase in megafires — fires that burn more than 100,000 acres. They visited state land to see how forests had been thinned, a fire station to look at firefighting equipment and a rural residence to learn how the homeowner made improvements to protect her property from wildfire.

Nine Mile Resident Bonnie Cobb, left, speaks to Gov. Jay Inslee about changes she has made to her property to help strengthen the area against wildfires. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Northwest of Spokane, Nine Mile Falls resident Bonnie Cobb, who’s also a local fire district commissioner, welcomed a crew of six state workers to clear brush from her property — an endeavor that could have taken her years to tackle on her own. Preventive work on her property and other land just outside of Spokane could help slow down a wildfire headed for the city.

That’s not all Cobb did. She volunteers for her local FireWise Communities Program, which teaches homeowners ways to prevent brush fires from burning their homes. The program reaches out to local homeowners by going door-to-door, sending out fliers and organizing community meetings.

The state Department of Natural Resources also can provide workers to thin woods on homeowners’ property.

At first, some homeowners are hesitant about getting help to remove trees and brush from their property, Cobb said. They might not be comfortable with government workers on their land or they might not want to see their trees cut down.

“It takes a lot of educating them,” Cobb said by phone following the tour.

She’s lived in the area since she was 2, so protecting Nine Mile Falls is “pretty dear to my heart,” she said.

For her work, Cobb was named Washingtonian of the Day by the governor on Tuesday. Franz also thanked Cobb for her leadership.

Franz said that more than 140 Washington communities are participating in FireWise programs, and she hopes to soon expand that program to 80 more communities.

The Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Network also is playing a role in combating wildfires. The network connects local agencies and groups so they can share best practices in the fight against wildfires and educate residents about creating communities that are more fire resilient. Many of the network’s partners also participated in the governor’s Wildland Fire Council.

Wildland Fire Council

In 2016, Inslee convened the Wildland Fire Council to host listening sessions in wildfire-susceptible communities and report on how to make Washington forests more resilient.

The council comprised the commissioner of public lands, the adjutant general of the Washington Military Department, the director of the Department of Commerce, related federal agencies, concerned citizens, tribal governments and local governments. More than 100 people participated in the council’s meetings and listening sessions.

The council’s work concluded in July. At its last meeting, members briefed the governor’s office about ways the state could improve its wildfire preparedness, response and recovery — a briefing that helped inform the governor’s latest budget proposal.

Budgeting for wildfires has provided a challenge for government officials.

The U.S. Forest Service has seen its firefighting spending grow from 13 percent of the agency’s annual budget to more than 40 percent over the past 25 years. Because so much money has been spent recently at the federal level to fight and recover from larger-than-normal wildfire seasons, that doesn’t leave as much money for wildfire prevention and forest maintenance, which also are needed.

Two years ago, the governor called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior to access emergency funding to respond to major wildfires, similar to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to other natural disasters. Such legislation has yet to be passed.

In Washington state, additional funds have been requested by DNR, the state’s largest on-call fire department, to increase wildland firefighting, prevention and recovery activities.

Inslee’s proposed 2017 supplemental and 2017–19 biennial budget met many of those requests. They include:

  • $23.9 million more to cover 2016 firefighting costs
  • Bumping up the money for firefighting during the 2017–19 biennium from $31 million to $33 million
  • $12.4 million for public safety efforts, including more FireWise communities and DNR prevention grants for parts of Central and Eastern Washington
  • $5 million for competitive grants for projects on federal land that support state and local hazard-reduction investments
  • $1.7 million for reforestation of land damaged by wildfires
  • $5 million for tree thinning, pruning and brush disposal
  • $453,000 for controlled burning on 1,000 acres of state trust land

On Tuesday, Inslee praised Franz for being a prominent advocate for wildland firefighting resources, and said that although his budget doesn’t offer quite as much money as she proposed, “it’s still ambitious.”

Inslee said he is hopeful state and federal lawmakers can provide the money needed to address wildfires. “When we make these smart moves — when we FireWise our communities, when we make public investments, when we have great local leadership like we have here in Spokane County — we can defeat these massive, catastrophic fires.”

Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, left, and Gov. Jay Inslee hear from a park ranger about tree thinning on state land. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

What you can do

Nationwide and in Washington state, the majority of wildfires are caused by human activity, including fireworks, campfires, target shooting and vehicle sparks.

People were responsible for causing 84 percent of wildfires in the United States from 1992 to 2012, according to a study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Of the 1,541 fires that began on DNR land in 2015, 1,084 were caused by people, according to the agency.

Tips for preventing forest fires when participating in outdoor recreation activities are available on DNR’s website. They include equipping recreation vehicles with working spark arrestors, not parking vehicles on dry grass, never using fireworks on DNR protected land and being aware of the latest wildfire risk level in your area.