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More than $23 million in federal grants will pay for Washington wildfire mitigation projects

A photograph of wildfire burning a forested area.
A file photograph of wildfire burning a forested area.

Wildfire mitigation and prevention projects in Washington are set to get $23.4 million in federal money, thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act.

The money, distributed through Community Wildfire Defense Grants (CWDG), will help pay for 13 state, local and tribal efforts to deal with and anticipate the Washington’s increasingly active wildfire seasons. The $25 million total ranks second behind California among the states that will get a portion of the overall grant package.

“Over the past thirty years, the number of acres per year by wildfire has more than doubled,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters during Monday’s grant announcement. “Our future is not yet written. The solutions are at hand…we must act with haste, and we can actually, right now, have an impact on how this all plays out.”

Washington’s Department of Natural Resources said Monday funding requests for all 13 projects were fully granted. Most of the projects are in western and central Washington.

The three eastern Washington projects funded under CWDG are in Spokane and Lincoln counties.

Spokane’s city fire department will get a $1.5-million grant to reduce conifer forests and brush on city-owned properties. The money will also help pay for fuels reduction on adjacent private and/or municipally-owned properties. The result, the Spokane Fire Department said Monday, will be approximately 1,000 acres being thinned, pruned and disposed of over the next five years.

“The city…has been trying to do this work for twenty years, off and on. And they’ve been through less than 100 acres total in the last twenty years,” Spokane Fire Marshal Lance Dahl said. “And what we’re attempting to is get through all the city unimproved forest that lies in the wildland-urban interface in the next ten years. It is pretty important.”

The pace and cost of the work depend on topography and other factors. The federal money, plus a portion of matching city funds, will go a long way to reducing and disposing of fuels in forested areas, Dahl said.

That work is important, Dahl said, because tree canopies tend to be excellent kindling in fires that are propelled by high winds. He cited the example of the 2020 fire that devastated Malden and Pine City.

Spokane, Dahl said, is “just as susceptible as other communities to a wind-driven fire event.”

Spokane County Fire District 4, which serves Deer Park, Chattaroy, and other parts of northern Spokane County, is slated to get $1.4 million to carry out efforts prescribed in a 2014 fire mitigation plan. In this round, the efforts include establishing two “Firewise” communities. Firewise is an initiative of the National Fire Protection Association aimed at educating homeowners about wildfire risks, and getting those homeowners to take preventive actions. There are already 17 Firewise communities in Spokane County.

The Lincoln County Conservation District will receive $66,446 to build upon its previous Community Wildfire Protection Plan. The plan identifies high-risk areas and recommends specific projects that may help prevent wildland fires, with the goal of “at least lessen[ing] their impact on residents and property in Lincoln County.”

Other projects across Washington follow similar veins. They focus on thinning and removing materials that can serve as wildfire fuel, educating the public about wildfire hazards, and building fire breaks around some vulnerable communities. The largest single grant in the state is a $10 million allocation for the Kittitas County Conservation District, mostly earmarked for reducing and removing burnable vegetation that could feed wildfires.

The $23.4 million coming to Washington is a little less than one-eighth of the total $197 million being distributed to 100 communities in 22 states and seven Indigenous tribes. More grants are expected to be distributed in coming years.

“This is an initial round of funding,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “It is a critical down payment to protect vulnerable communities.”

The Community Wildfire Defense Grants are part of a larger recent federal focus on preventing and dealing with wildfires, especially in western states. CWDG will provide a billion dollars over five years to communities at risk for fires.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act contained $3.5 billion in wildfire preparation and prevention money. That section of the law also funded fire forecasting improvements and increased pay for federal wildland firefighters.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.