Wildfire And Forest Health Bill Receives Hearing In Washington Legislature

Jan 22, 2021

Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Okanogan County) is one of the co-sponsors of a bill that aims to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires in Washington.
Credit TVW screenshot

Last fall’s wildfires were invoked Friday at a hearing for a new forest health bill in the Washington legislature.

The bill is proposed at the request of Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who reminded members of a House committee that 2020 was the worst wildfire season in years in Washington.

More than 80,000 acres burned, about three-fourths of that around Labor Day when high winds blew several wildfires around the state out of control. Franz said the conditions that made that week so destructive have been present for years.

“When it comes to wildfire, we cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road, hoping that next year will be different from the last. We cannot afford to be making hope and luck our strategy to protect our communities and our firefighters," she said.

Franz's bill would set up a dedicated fund to address the underlying causes. A similar bill died in the legislature last year, in part because of disagreements about how it should have been funded.

This year's version has sponsors from both parties, including Rep. Larry Springer [D-Kirkland].

"This bill sets out a framework for a 20-year plan to do, essentially, three things: improve the health of our forests so that they can resist wildfire more effectively, increase our ability to attack fires when they do break out, and to help our communities be more fire resilient," he said.

His partner in this is Rep. Joel Kretz [R-Wauconda], who has, for several years, pushed the state to do more to protect rural communities like his from severe wildfires.

“I think this bill’s a good start at doing a better job of coordinating. Right now, I would say, in the Seventh District [which Kretz represents], the best neighbors are the tribes. The state is doing a much better job. They’ve made huge progress the last 10 years. The Colville National Forest is functioning really well. But we all know the elephant in the room is the federal government lands that have just not been managed for whatever reason or another.”

Several people testified in favor of the bill on Friday, including Dan Harwood, the mayor of Malden, which lost 80% of its homes to a Labor Day wildfire. Some like the provisions aimed at diversifying the demographics of Washington's state wildfire crews.

Ashley House from the Washington Cattlemens’ Association appreciated the attention given to the needs of rural communities.

“However, we can’t help but wonder and perhaps worry a bit about what the funding source of this legislation will be," she said.

Last year, Hilary Franz proposed a small surcharge on liability insurance premiums to pay for wildfire-related measures. That didn’t fly. This year, she says, she’s open to new funding mechanisms and vowed to work with legislators on that.