As we focus on another legislative session in Olympia, you can bet I’ll be there fighting for a smarter — and safer — approach to our wildfire crisis.
The reactive funding system we’ve relied on for decades — spending most of our dollars on fighting wildfires and not on preventing them — is the wrong approach, one that endangers our communities and costs more in the long run.
Wildfire funds depend on a two-year budget cycle, making it hard to plan ahead five, 10 and 20 years for wildfire prevention and forest health treatments.
Don’t get me wrong; the Washington Legislature has invested in wildfire prevention, including efforts to make our forests healthier and more naturally resistant to wildfire. But these short-term investments are insufficient to meet this immense challenge of building a 21st century wildfire fighting force.
It’s not enough in the face of a record-setting 1,850 wildfires last year — or the more than 1.1 million acres that burned in 2015.
We didn’t get into this problem overnight, and we can’t solve it overnight. Our firefighters and scientists have given us a blueprint to tackle this crisis: our state’s 10-Year Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan and 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan.
Now it’s time for us to give them the resources they need to get the job done. This legislative session, I will join legislators to establish dedicated revenue to ensure that our firefighting, forest health and reforestation efforts are properly funded each year.
A new Wildfire Prevention and Forest Health Account will fund the restoration of 1.25 million acres of forest to health, returning natural wildfire resistance and reducing wildfires. It will also provide our firefighters the helicopters, planes, equipment, and training they need to reach fires quickly.
Money for the new account would come from a flat surcharge of a few cents on premiums for property and casualty insurance policies, such as home and auto policies. It would cost the average household just over $1 per month.
This would raise roughly $63 million dollars each year for proactive, proven, science-based strategies to reduce forest fuels, create healthier forests, secure communities and create stronger local economies. Healthy forests provide clean water and air for fish and wildlife and aid in salmon recovery. American Lung Association, Washington Fire Chiefs and Nature Conservancy have endorsed this proposal because of public health risks from wildfire smoke.
The dangerous job of firefighting has become more complex as we battle larger, more severe fires and our population expands into forested areas. Add the increasing effects of climate change and longer, hotter, drier wildfire seasons, and we will face higher risks if we fail to invest in long-term prevention efforts.
This summer’s wildfire season may have seemed mild compared to the megafires and smoky skies of 2018 and 2015, but that may not be the case in 2020.
We can, and should, act now to reclaim our summers from the flames and smoke with smart, common-sense measures.