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Move to Prevent Wildfires Gains Momentum in Washington Legislature

USA Today

With all this water in our region right now -- one of the wettest springs ever -- the chance of a wildfire starting and gaining traction somewhere is pretty remote. But the memories of the severe wildfire seasons of 2014 and 2015 — speaking of the power of Mother Nature — are still fresh in the minds of Washington elected leaders.

Last week, Governor Jay Inslee, Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz and a few others met with landowners like Bonnie Cobb a bit west of Spokane. They wanted to see the work these folks had done to keep their homes and property safe from wildfire.

“This is one of our most successful Firewise communities because we married great local leadership like Bonnie with a few dollars from the state and from the federal government," Inslee said. "Great things can happen when you leverage all that mutual effort.”

Lands Commissioner Franz says Washington has more than 140 Firewise neighborhoods, with a request in the state budget for a million dollars to help another 80 get started.

“We’re making significant progress. When I say we, I mean the agency is certainly a key factor in helping provide that funding and resources," Franz said. "But the homegrown part of getting communities engaged on the ground in their own communities, how to make themselves more resilient, has been so helpful.”

It’s that idea, making land more resistant to wildfires, that is driving support for two forest health bills that are moving through the Washington legislature. The bills are sponsored by two eastern Washington legislators, Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-Wenatchee)and Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Okanogan County). But even urban legislators such as Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) have signed on. Springer’s district includes the eastside Seattle suburbs. But he has personal reasons for supporting the bills. About 50 years ago, he, his father and brother built a cabin between Lake Wenatchee and Leavenworth that’s still in the family.

“My family has faced evacuations twice from our cabin near those fires and it occurs to us that this is going to be a syndrome that we’re going to face for years to come," Springer said. "We cannot continue to come down here to Olympia year after year and write bigger and bigger checks in order to put out fires. We need to build forests that are resilient.”

The wildfire policy advisor for the Department of Natural Resources says the state has, over the last six years, spent $400 million to battle wildfires, but only $20 million to prevent them.

“We need a shift in thinking when it comes to wildfire, a shift from being reactive about wildfire to being proactive,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins’s bill aims to treat a million acres of forests during the next six years. That means cutting trees when the density makes them susceptible to quickly moving fires. It means prescribed burns to clear out fuel. It means creating fire breaks that can stop fires from spreading. And it means keeping track of the work that’s done.

Kretz’s legislation directs the Department of Natural Resources to identify forested state trust lands most in need of treatment over the next generation. It would require two-year and six-year project lists.

“This is an attempt to get a little bit more strategic in how we’re doing it. We’ve got millions of acres that need treatment. A lot of them are extremely unhealthy and we’re trying to get looking out a little bit further into the future on how do we plan that," Kretz said. "With it on a schedule we’ve got a little bit more accountability on the back end so the legislature sees what we’re getting for the buck.”

Both bills have moved through their houses of origin without dissenting votes. Hawkins’ bill was voted out of a House committee today. Kretz’s bill has received a hearing in a Senate committee. Both say their bills are complementary, not competitive with each other.

We’re joined now on the phone by Joel Kretz, who cites two examples of what he considers best practices in protecting land from fire.

3:19        “You know, I think the best…self fund it a little bit.”

One of the unusual things about this legislation is that it has no real opposition. Here's a sample of the people who have testified in favor of the two bills.

“Thank you, Mr. Chair and members of the committee. Jason Callahan from the Washington Forest Protection Association signing in pro on this bill.”

“My name is Matt Comisky. I’m the Washington manager for American Forest Resource Council.”

Those are names you would expect to hear supporting this bill. These you might be surprised by.

“Mitch Friedman. I direct Conservation Northwest out of Seattle.”

“For the record, my name is Scott Richards. I’m testifying on behalf of the Nature Conservancy.”

(back to the interview with Joel Kretz)  “One of the things…a different way now.”

Joel Kretz is a Republican representative in Washington’s Seventh Legislative District. He’s the prime sponsor of one of two forest health bills moving through the legislature.