Bill to Prevent and Fight WA Wildfires Approved by Legislature

Washington wildfires
FILE - In this Sept. 9, 2020, file photo, a helicopter makes a water drop on a hotspot of a wildfire burning in Bonney Lake, Wash., south of Seattle. A bill to spend $125 million to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington state was passed by the House on Thursday, April 22, 2021, and now will go to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, Pool, File)

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — A bill to spend $125 million to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington sailed through the state House on Thursday and now goes to Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature.

The House voted unanimously to concur with Senate amendments made to the bipartisan legislation, which was promoted by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz.

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. It would provide $125 million every two years to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration and support community resilience.

“To our firefighters and communities on the frontlines, know this: reinforcements are coming,” said Franz, who leads Washington’s wildfire fighting force. “Today, the state legislature took a historic step to change the trajectory of increasing fire and destruction.”

“In the face of an unrelenting wildfire crisis, our state is rising to meet the moment,” she said. “We are rejecting the notion that we must simply accept devastating fire seasons as a fact of life in Washington.”

While supporters originally sought a dedicated funding source for House Bill 1168, the work will be paid for out of the state general fund for its first two years. Amendments included a mandate that lawmakers find a stable funding source beyond that.

A similar effort failed in the Legislature last session.

This bill follows a destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 1,250 square miles (3,238 square kilometers) burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden. One infant was killed by wildfire last season.

For two of the past three years, Washington has experienced among the worst air quality in the world due to wildfires. Franz has said the state spends $150 million to battle the blazes.

Wildfire severity has worsened in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 acres in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020.

The bill proposes spending $75 million every two years to hire and train more firefighters, buy more airplanes and helicopters, improve leadership and improve fire detection systems. Franz noted that some of the 10 helicopters in the state’s firefighting fleet date to the Vietnam War, and have the bullet holes to prove it.

Franz also wants to spend $37 million to restore 1.25 million acres of forest lands to make them more resistant to wildfires.

Finally, her plan calls for spending $12 million to reduce fuels and create firebreaks that would prevent communities like Malden from being wiped out by fast-moving flames.

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