Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and so it was that the state’s commissioner of Public Lands, Hilary Franz, took to Twitter recently in a bid to do whatever it takes to make sure that Washington will have enough resources on hand to prevent and suppress wildfires this summer and in tinder-dry years to come.
Even if that means busting dance moves with Smokey Bear, beside a firefighting helicopter, to a remix of Panic! At The Disco’s “High Hopes.”
Even if that means exploiting memes from “Game of Thrones,” that pop culture phenomenon, intoning that “Mother of Dragons uses fire #ForTheThrone, we use fire to safely and proactively burn away forest underbrush …”
Even if that means tweeting video from her passionate testimony last week before the state Senate in support of establishing a dedicated funding source to battle wildfires: “The truth is, nothing has substantially changed in the way our state funds wildfire prevention and forest health and suppression from 10 years ago to today…”
We should not just give credit to Franz for her media-savvy instincts, we also should listen to her message.
The Legislature is currently mulling the fate of SB 5996, the Franz-promoted bill which would funnel $62.5 million a year to a newly-formed Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account that would give the Department of Natural Resources the tools it needs to prevent summer blazes and suppress the severity of fires that come each summer and fall.
No one, not even the most fiscally prudent lawmaker in the state, will deny that Washington’s current firefighting efforts are inadequate. Recall that in the height of the miasmic haze of last summer, when fires scorched land both east and west of the Cascades, the DNR had to import 45 firefighters from as far away as Australia — two more than Washington employs full-time — to help quell the blazes. Recall, too, that the state has on hand only seven helicopters, all dating from the Vietnam War era, with which to dump water and retardant.
Rather than going through the yearly scramble for resources by having to raid other state funds to cover costs — $153 million per year in each of the past five years — while the fires rage, the formation of a permanent yearly fund for wildfire use simply makes sense.
The problem, as is so often the case when it comes to proposed government programs, is how to pay for it. Franz and the sponsors of the bill, Sens. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, and Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, propose that increasing the tax on premiums from property and casualty insurance from 2 percent to 2.52 percent. Supporters note that such an increase would only cost the “average household” less than $2 a month.
Those who pay homeowner and vehicle insurance might balk at any rise in premiums, but it makes sense to many that the money to fund firefighting come from people who are insured against fire to their homes and cars. Insurers might balk about having to charge slightly more but, presumably, they would save more in reduced post-fire payouts to policyholders.
As Franz wrote recently in an op-ed in The Seattle Times, “When wildfires hit, people lose their homes and vehicles – necessities for living their lives – and there is a big impact on our communities and local economies when smoke forces us indoors or when communities are evacuated.”
One wrinkle in SB 5996, which perhaps can be smoothed over in the legislative session, is that property insurance is not the only funding source. Lobbyists for the insurance industry testified that other types of insurance — such as medical malpractice and liability — will be tapped into the proposed account.
But the insurance industry’s other worry — that “price-sensitive” insurance buyers might shy away from getting coverage if there’s any increase — is an unknown. A reasonable person can assume a few dollars increase will not dissuade people, particularly those living in fire-prone areas, from keeping a homeowner’s policy.
We do know this much, though: Fire season has grown in duration and intensity these past few years — a record 1,850 wildfires in 2018 — and predictions are that little will change this summer and in coming years. (In fact, the state already has dealt with 51 fires this year, starting the week of March 18.)
The state desperately needs new, and more, helicopters — not to mention more firefighters, period. Much of the fund would be funneled into forest thinning, prescribed burns and removing diseased and dying trees in Central and Eastern Washington — all of which can greatly mitigate the spread of a wildfire. Establishing a dedicated fund not only would allow DNR to double its firefighting force, but also enable the agency to systemically restore 1.25 million acres of unhealthy forests.
Establishing a dedicated fire fund would keep Franz — and the DNR — from having to do a song and dance each year to beg for funds, even though her duet with Smokey was, well, smoldering.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis