North-central Washington legislator Joel Kretz said Wednesday that Puget Sound residents can look out their windows at the smoke from wildfires and see what his constituents regularly live through.
Washington's two largest wildfires are burning near each other in Okanogan and Douglas counties. Combined, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires surpass in size the 2014 Carlton Fire, a record blaze that burned 256,000 acres in Okanogan County.
That fire was followed in 2015 by Washington's only 1 million-acre wildfire season. In response, the state set a goal to thin 200,000 acres annually. The goal was revised in 2017 to thin 1.25 million acres in 20 years. So far, the Department of Natural Resources has thinned 65,429 acres, a spokeswoman said.
Lawmakers haven't backed the ambitions with enough money, said Kretz, a Republican member of the state House of Representatives who lives in Okanogan County.
"This has been a Legislature pleased to spend every spare nickel on climate change," Kretz said. "We have a more immediate fear. My folks want to see something tomorrow."
In his press conferences on the wildfires, Gov. Jay Inslee said he supports forest thinning, but has blamed climate change for the fires, calling the blazes scorching Washington "climate fires."
Fires are burning "despite our investments in land management, which we are doing in the state of Washington," Inslee said.
"What we are experiencing right now stresses the urgent need for climate integrated plans to address natural disasters that are intensified by human-caused climate change," he said Tuesday.
House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Brian Blake said the governor is overlooking what the state can do in the short term.
"I think he's focused on his personal political beliefs instead of focused on the holistic problem and what we can do tomorrow and next year," said Blake, an Aberdeen Democrat.
Blake said progress in thinning forests has been slow, but credited Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz with taking on the job since winning the office in 2016.
"The previous administration just basically opposed forest burning, and they had a lot of excuses," Blake said. "It's taken awhile to change that culture.
"We've got a commissioner (Franz) who believes in the science and sees the need," he said. "While I wish DNR was further along, I understand the wheels of government grind slowly."
The state has set other forest-thinning goals.
In 2017, the Legislature directed DNR to thin 1 million acres by 2033. Toward that end, the current two-year capital budget sets aside $13.2 million, about half the amount the state estimates it will forgo in revenue by offering tax breaks to encourage motorists to buy electric and alternative fuel vehicles.
Kretz proposed this year adding $53.4 million for fire prevention, but the House voted down his budget amendment.
"I think some legislators think it just doesn't affect them," he said. "The sad part is that smoke has to hit Seattle for wildfires to be on the radar."
Six years ago, the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy identified 2.7 million acres in Eastern Washington that were overgrown, mostly federal forestland.
The Nature Conservancy's fire restoration director in Washington, Reese Lolley, said progress has been made in assessing where land should be thinned and in coordinating the actions of different levels of government.
"It's not as fast as all of us would like, but we're on the right trajectory," he said.