YAKIMA, Wash. -- As devastating wildfires continue to increase throughout Washington state, so does the sense of urgency to prevent and control them.
Thursday in Olympia, Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz unveiled a strategic 10-year fire protection plan that calls for significant increases in resources, training, funding and education to tackle a problem only expected to get worse with climate change and additional development in high-risk areas.
“We must act like our safety, our economy and our lives depend on it, because they do,” Franz said. “This is an all-lands, all-hands approach applying to all wildfire response agencies.”
More than 1,000 stakeholders, including local, state and federal agencies, provided input for the plan. Community wildfire specialist Annie Schmidt, who lives in Leavenworth, worked with a team of consultants as a contractor for the plan and said it’s more focused on cohesiveness than past efforts.
Schmidt and Franz emphasized that successful reduction of fire and smoke won’t be possible without collaboration from everyone involved. Franz believes the Legislature will fund the Department of Natural Resources’ additional $55 million budget request for forest health treatments and wildfire response, which will help the agency add 30 firefighters to its force of 43, along with 40 seasonal firefighters and additional air support.
The plan also calls for establishing a training academy and a sustainable funding mechanism, as well as ramping up education — especially on the west side of the Cascades — since 90 percent of wildfires in Washington last year were human-caused.
Franz led changes to the agency’s suppression strategies when she took over in 2017 and touted their effectiveness last fire season, when a record 1,850 wildfires in every part of the state burned 440,000 acres, compared to a million acres in 2015. The Twisp Fire in north-central Washington alone racked up $60 million in suppression costs, according to Franz, highlighting the benefits of additional up-front investments.
“Keeping fire small is our best strategy for minimizing risk and costs,” Franz said.
Obstacles still remain, however, including the lack of help from Forest Service workers and firefighters during the federal government shutdown. Among other issues, Franz said the state has already canceled one interagency training, and new state wildlife supervisor George Geissler said the service can recruit but is unable to make new hires until the government opens.
Another key goal of the plan addresses lands not protected by fire districts, such as some areas east of the Yakima Training Center, as well as parts of the central Cascades where the Jolly Mountain Fire burned in 2017. New rangeland fire protection associations could be an option, along with annexing those lands or simply creating new fire districts.
Franz and Schmidt warned it will take a sustained, collaborative effort, but they believe Washington residents will eventually start seeing benefits.
“The goal is to get better fire outcomes,” Schmidt said. “I think we have to recognize it took a long time to get us into this mess, and it’s going to take us a little bit to get out of it.”