Residents talk with a firefighter while keeping an eye on a fire on a hillside near a field on August 23, 2015 near Omak, Washington.
Residents talk with a firefighter while keeping an eye on a fire on a hillside near a field on August 23, 2015 near Omak, Washington. Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Last summer, wildfire smoke caused Seattle to have the worst air quality in the world. If you were here, you remember it well. The haze that clouded our skies for days. The choking smoke that forced us indoors.

For many in our region, this degree and duration of wildfire smoke is a new phenomenon. What you may not be aware of is that this is a problem decades in the making. The smoke that stung our eyes and choked our lungs is directly related to our state’s wildfire and forest health crisis.

And it is a crisis. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), our state’s wildfire fighting force, responded to 1,850 wildfires last year—the most ever. And 40 percent of these fires were west of the Cascades. This year, we are seeing wildfires earlier than ever. Last month, we had 54 unseasonal wildfires, 53 of which were in Western Washington. It’s a crisis, and it’s getting worse.

So how did we get here?

For hundreds of year, wildfires were a natural and important part of our forests. Routine, low-intensity fires would clear underbrush, but leave strong, healthy trees unharmed. More than a century ago, however, we decided to go all-in on firefighting, extinguishing every forest fire possible.

Although our intentions to increase public safety were pure, the irony is that by trying so hard to protect ourselves from wildfires, we allowed forests to grow unnaturally overcrowded. When trees grow too close together, there is too much demand for limited water and nutrients. This leads to trees that are weak and unhealthy. Those overcrowded forests also are vulnerable to disease and insect infestation, which weakens them further.

Climate change has made a bad situation worse. Last year, we experienced severe droughts and warmer temperatures in our region. Hotter temperatures and drier seasons have led to longer wildfire seasons. The result is 2.7 million acres of weak, fire-prone forestland in Central and Eastern Washington alone, and fires that burn easier and more severely. We have ticking time bombs across our landscape, just waiting for a spark.

These uncharacteristically severe fires put communities at risk, endanger our firefighters, and fill our skies with smoke—even here in Seattle.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can change course.

We are Washingtonians, after all. We are the home of startups that push the limits of technology, of bold and progressive politics, and of nature lovers who conserve the landscapes that define this beautiful place.

That’s why, in partnership with Senate Democrats in our state Legislature, I am calling for a groundbreaking solution: Senate Bill 5996. This proposal creates a new Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account, which would dedicate $62.5 million a year to address our wildfire and forest health crisis.

The fund will support the DNR’s Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, as well as the agency’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan.

These long-ranging plans tackle our wildfire crisis by giving firefighters the tools they need to respond quickly and strategically during challenging fire seasons, including new helicopters, more firefighters, and better training—but they don’t stop at fire suppression. These plans also empower forestland owners of all types—state, federal, tribal, and private—to restore the health of forests across the landscape, bringing them to a more natural, fire-resistant state.

This isn’t about “raking the forest,” as our President has laughably suggested. This is about transformative work to save our forests and protect our communities. Healthy forests clean our air and water, they pull carbon pollution out of our atmosphere, and provide vital salmon habitat, the primary food source for our struggling killer whales.

If passed, this bill would demonstrate that which defines us as Washingtonians: the care we have for our neighbors and our willingness to help one another. Traits too often lacking in the other Washington right now.

Deposits into the new wildfire account would come from increasing the tax on premiums for home and casualty insurance from 2 percent to 2.52 percent. That pencils out to less than $2 per month for the average household. Asking families for more is not a request we make lightly. But we are already paying for wildfires. On average, over the past five years, we’ve spent $153 million each year fighting wildfires in Washington.

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It’s also why this small tax increase has a nexus to the harms caused by our wildfire crisis, acknowledging the impacts wildfire can have on people’s property and local economies. In one way or another, wildfires and forest health affect everyone in Washington, and that’s why we must all contribute to the solution.

Never before have our wildland firefighters needed to ask for so much, but the consequences of inaction are dire. We got our forests and our communities into this mess, and we have a responsibility to get them out of it.

Hilary Franz is Washington State's Commissioner of Public Lands. Elected in 2016, Commissioner Franz leads the Department of Natural Resources, Washington’s wildfire fighting force.