Haze from more than a dozen wildfires burning across Central Washington hung in the sky Wednesday as local, state, tribal and federal fire officials gathered at the Naches Ranger District headquarters to discuss wildfire policy with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.
They told Cantwell that a combination of dangerously dry conditions, coupled with the lack of resources for fire prevention and preparedness, has created a unsustainable crisis.
“This year has been an extremely severe fire season so far,” state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark said. “We’re seeing more communities at risk from wildfires than ever. It’s tough out there.”
Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is working on wildfire legislation to improve firefighting response and support more fuel reduction and community preparedness efforts. She came to Naches to gather ideas.
“After the Carlton Complex fire, we realized that we need new tools to address these fires before they happen,” said Cantwell, referring to the 400-square mile fire that destroyed more than 300 homes in Okanogan County last summer. “Right now, too much of the budget is going to fight the actual fires.”
When wildfire fighting busts its budget, the U.S. Forest Service is forced to cover the costs by borrowing from its other programs, including those that reduce the risk of wildfires. This year, the agency has already spent more than half of its $5 billion annual budget on fires.
The head of the Forest Service for Washington and Oregon, Jim Pena, said last week’s lightning storm triggered fires that exceeded the region’s already stretched resources.
National Guard and active-duty soldiers have been called in to help as fires burn on nearly 500 square miles around the state. Late last week, fires near Chelan destroyed dozens of homes. With no other help available last weekend, a small fire district on the Spokane reservation was left on its own to fight a growing blaze that eventually destroyed 15 homes.
“I believe this is a new normal. We need to keep looking forward instead of looking back on what to expect,” Pena said. “The biggest thing we need is a new approach to fire-suppression funding that would allow us to do the risk-reduction work.”
Proposed legislation in both the House and Senate aims to solve the Forest Service’s budget problem by allowing the cost of the most expensive, destructive fires to be covered by the existing federal natural disaster fund.
Cantwell and the rest of Washington’s congressional delegation support that proposal. But she said she also wants her legislation to take a broader approach to the growing wildfire management problems.
That made sense to the Yakima and Kittitas County officials who now say “when” rather than “if” when talking to their communities about the importance of preparing for wildfires.
“Our problem isn’t just going out and fighting the fires, it’s doing things ahead of time to prevent it from becoming a disaster,” said Kittitas County Fire District 7 Chief Russ Hobbs.
Hobbs described how Firewise efforts taken by landowners, such as clearing brush, thinning trees and creating defensible space around homes has protected homes and aided firefighters. Firewise is a federal program, but proponents often use the term as a verb as well.
The Kittitas County Conservation District uses state and federal grant money to help landowners “firewise” their properties by splitting the cost. Director Anna Lael told Cantwell there’s more demand from residents than she has funding for.
Collaborative efforts between the state, the Forest Service and the Yakama Nation at thinning fuel and restoring forest health have reduced fire risks, said Mary Sutton Carruthers, coordinator of the Tapash Sustainable Forest Collaborative.
But those efforts depend on funding and an active timber industry with loggers and sawmills to do the needed thinning work, said Matt Cominsky, manager of the Washington office for the American Forest Resource Council.
The theme of Wednesday’s discussion: We’re on the right track, but more investment is needed to speed up fuel reduction, community preparation and rapid, efficient response by firefighters.
In a similar discussion with local leaders in Wenatchee on Tuesday, Cantwell heard about the need for investment in technology, such as sophisticated radar systems — which could help fire officials predict dangerous conditions before they occur — and the value of using controlled burns to reduce the risk of future fires.
In terms of fire response, Pena and Goldmark spoke highly of the interagency cooperation system that gets firefighters on the ground quickly. But state Forester Aaron Everett said local fire districts, which are often the first responders, could use more resources and training.
In an interview after the meeting, Goldmark said he hopes to see those same agency relationships used in firefighting address prevention and preparedness. But he said seeking funds for those activities has been a challenge in Olympia and Washington, D.C.
“Unless the fire is burning, there isn’t the same urgency,” Goldmark said.