A two-year $55 million spending plan would dampen destructive wildfires by thinning forests and enlarging the Washington Department of Natural Resources firefighting force, Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz said Wednesday.
Speaking at the department’s helicopter hangar in Tumwater, Franz outlined the budget request she will present to state lawmakers early next year. She was joined by Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who praised the package and said wildfires have scorched the earth in his agriculture-rich district.
“It might be four, five, six years before that ground recovers,” he said. “We call that a ‘moonscape.’ We have a couple of those in my district, and it’s awful to see.”
The proposal responds to a string of severe fire seasons, which the department blames on climate change and past “inadequate” forest management. The plan Franz presented was in addition to the $65 million the department will seek to cover the cost of fighting fires in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. DNR anticipates the $16.5 million lawmakers previously approved will be far too little.
The department estimates wildfires will burn nearly 350,000 acres this year. Although fewer acres will burn than in some recent years, the state has had about 1,700 wildfires, the second-most in state history, according to the department. About 39 percent of the fires have been in Western Washington.
Smoke made some summer days hazy west of the Cascades. Dent said the smoke gave westside legislators a whiff of what’s become typical on the eastside.
“We had east winds so it blew smoke to the westside, so folks over here got to experience what we’ve been experiencing for decades,” he said.
The package includes a $17 million request from the capital budget to thin overgrown forests by logging or controlled burns. The department has a goal of thinning 1.25 million acres in Eastern Washington over the next 20 years.
The other $38 million would come from the operating budget.
The details of the proposal are:
• $12 million to turn 30 seasonal firefighter jobs into year-round positions. DNR now has 43 full-time firefighters. The new firefighters would plan fire-prevention forest projects during the winter. The money also would fund a $100,000 study on improving telecommunications for firefighters in rural areas.
• $6.25 million to add two firefighting helicopters. DNR currently has seven helicopters.
• $5.76 million to create a forest health division within DNR. The division would split from the department’s wildfire division.
• $4.86 million to employ 350 prison inmates to fight fires, plant trees, thin forests and work in kitchens in fire camps. The DNR already deploys inmates. The proposal is to put 80 more in the field, according to the department.
• $4.26 million to assist private landowners with reducing wildfire danger. The money would create three new positions and transfer 13.5 positions from the capital budget to the operating budget.
• $2.2 million to add five full-time employees who will train firefighters to battle wildland fires.
• $1.94 million to add seven employees to educate the public about preventing fires.
• $724,240 to assign two employees to manage contracts and grants for forest projects on federal lands.
• $234,200 for a half-time position to lead a team of DNR geologists, hydrologists and foresters to assess the danger of floods and landslides after wildfires.