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Fires Could Refuel Debate About Wildfire Funding In Washington

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Washington state legislators will have a difficult task in writing a balanced budget in 2021. A Covid-battered economy has slowed, while the state has spent a lot more money to respond to the virus.

But the state’s lands commissioner hopes this week’s surge in wildfires will convince to spend more money for fire prevention and suppression.

During the 2020 session, Hilary Franz proposed a surcharge on property and casualty insurance premiums. She estimated it would have cost the average policyholder about a dollar a month extra and raised more than 60-million a year for a new state wildfire fund. But before lawmakers could act on it, Covid pounced and the proposal fizzled.

When Spokane Public Radio asked Franz about reviving it during a Wednesday visit to the fire-stricken town of Malden, she expressed some frustration.

“I would never want to use a tragedy for motivation. I mean, that’s the hard part about this, right? It shouldn’t come to this. It shouldn’t have to be a devastation of a town. It shouldn’t have to be the loss of a life to get people to pay attention to what we’ve all known," Franz said.

She proposes to spend more money to help communities such as Malden take steps to minimize damage when fire roars through. That includes getting more equipment to rural fire departments and treating state lands to make them less susceptible to huge fires.

The intense wildfire seasons in 2014 and 2015 ignited the conversation and led to some action being taken in 2016. But Franz says the momentum since has stalled.  

“Everybody forgot until 2018 happened and then smoke filled the skies. And then 2019 and everybody forgot again. It’s my job to make sure they don’t forget and we will not, trust me, we will not let them forget," Franz said.

Franz says she knows it will be a challenge to get legislators to consider her proposal in 2021, given the Covid-driven budget problems. But she hopes the elevated fire suppression costs from this month’s wildfires will get their attention.

There’s one other hurdle. Franz must first be re-elected in November.