Smoke blotted out the sun for over a week last September. There was a run on air purifiers. For those of us who were less proactive, we kept our windows shut tight, favoring the stale, stifling indoor heat to the wall of ash outside. The city scrambled to find COVID-safe emergency shelters for the homeless. Our air quality hovered around "worst in the world" for days.
Throughout Washington, the situation was far worse. Hundreds of fires burned 800,000 acres, destroyed nearly 300 homes, and killed a civilian, a 1-year-old boy, for the first time in state history, according to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.
Fire seasons up and down the West Coast are out of control. In Washington, fire season is stretching on for longer and impacting more parts of the state. Each year, fires creep further west and closer to cities. Bonney Lake, right outside of Tacoma, was evacuated last year. The problem isn't going anywhere.
For the third year in a row, Franz is bringing a bill to the Washington state Legislature that will set aside $125 million every two years to shore up firefighting resources, maintain forests to keep fires under control, and equip with adequate defenses communities most likely to, uh, well, burn to the ground.
She's just asking the legislators to stop the Evergreen state from "turning charcoal black."
Currently, the Legislature tosses the DNR around $40 to $45 million in base funding. Crumbs! The state is giving Franz crumbs!
"I remember in 2018 we had one fire that cost $60 million alone," Franz said. "We blew through that funding with that one fire."
The DNR lacks resources. The agency only employs 73 firefighters for the whole state, and it only maintains 10 helicopters—eight of which flew in the American war in Vietnam. Without dedicated funding, Franz said she can't plan ahead for when fires do break out.
Last Labor Day weekend was hot, dry, and windy. Never a good combo. In just 72 hours, 600,000 acres burned. Franz needed more air support. "I couldn't get any aircraft," she said. Fires surged up and down the coast. "Finally, I got one from Montana. It came a week late."
Due to COVID-19, federal incident management teams (the people responsible for responding to crises) were stretched thin. For the massive Colville Fire, Franz depended on a 15- to 17-member incident management team. Normally, she said, they would have a 50- to 75-member crew for that size fire.
"We were having to figure out how to fight these fires with skeleton crews on the ground and limited resources in the air," Franz said. Back in COVID-free 2017, Washington relied on Australian firefighters for wildfire help since the U.S. couldn't spare the manpower.
If her bill passes, Franz could hire 100 more firefighters, bring in two fixed-wing planes, upgrade and modernize the aging choppers, and add infrared night vision tech to do nighttime firefighting.
While the funds for firefighting are the sexiest part of the bill, the forest restoration and community resilience aspects are just as important. Forest restoration will fund the work of removing dead trees and small, dying trees to rid forests of the tinder that fuels out-of-control blazes.
The community resilience piece of the bill is new to this third iteration of Franz's fire prevention legislation. This part provides funding for fire education and for the creation of "fuel breaks," or parts of the landscape that won't burn, around entire fire-risk communities.
The other difference this year is that the bill doesn't have a dedicated funding source. Franz is coming to the Legislature with the "what," as she puts it, and she's looking for them to find "the how." Previously, the funding source for the bill was an insurance surcharge.
Franz recognizes the challenges of asking for these funds in a state marinating in COVID-19 budget shortfalls, but "frankly, we don't have a choice," she said. "The question isn't whether we pay for it or don’t pay for it, it’s whether we pay to react in the face of smoke and flames and risk to lives, or whether we’re going to pay upfront proactively."
"I never ever want to put my firefighters in the position they were in last year again," Franz said.