Washington state officials warn of record-breaking wildfire season to come


OLYMPIA — After several years of devastating wildfires across Washington, lawmakers this year agreed to make a major investment in wildfire prevention and forest health.

It was a fight Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz had been fighting since she first came into office in 2017.

And the money — $500 million over the next five years — can't come soon enough. As the state braces for dry fire season that already set a record for spring fires, officials are calling on homeowners to do their part to keep their communities safe.

"Unfortunately, while the investment is significant, we will not see much of that being able to help us this fire season," Franz said.

The bill, which passed unanimously in the Legislature, provides $125 million every two years for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resilience. It would fund 100 more firefighters and two more airplanes that could help the state contain fires more quickly.

It also would help fund the Department of Natural Resource's 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which treats the state's forests to make them more wildfire resistant. Lastly, it would help communities make investments to reduce wildfire risk, such as building fuel breaks or doing prescribed burns.

After the proposal first passed in the House in March, co-sponsor Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, called this proposal "the big one that really needs to happen to make measurable impacts."

After the bill passed, Franz said she felt relief, but she knew the fight was just beginning, as Washington already is breaking records this season on wildfires.

By the end of April, Washington already experienced 218 fires, which "shatters previous records," Franz said. Hotter, dryer conditions means the state is experiencing fast-spreading fires earlier in the season.

According to the United States Drought Monitor, much of Eastern Washington was in either a moderate or severe drought as of May 4.

Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign the bill as well as the final budget that will allocate the money within the next week, but even once it's signed, the Department of Natural Resources won't get the money until July, just as fire season starts to pick up in the state.

Until the money is released, DNR can't hire more firefighters, buy more planes or implement a statewide community resiliency effort — meaning the state has to continue to work without the boosted resources approved by the Legislature to fight the upcoming wildfire season.

So far, Franz said the department has secured temporary contracts for additional planes to help this season while they wait to buy new ones. The department also is completing its work on forest health as part of its 20-year plan. The new funds when they are received will accelerate that.

One of the community resiliency pieces of the bill, the Wildfire Ready Neighbors program,  launched in three counties last month. The DNR is piloting the project in Spokane, Okanogan and Chelan counties, with the hope additional funds later this year could help expand it into more communities.

The program allows residents to sign up online for free, answer a few questions about their home and receive a wildfire ready plan. Part of that plan includes a consultation with a local wildfire expert.

To sign up, visit wildfireready.dnr.wa.gov. In Spokane County, residents have until June 11 to register.

Guy Gifford, DNR Firewise and fire community coordinator in the northeast region, completes the home consultations with residents. He walks through the property with the owner and discusses what might be putting the home at risk for wildfire spread. Some examples include flammable material, such as pine needles, cardboard boxes, doormats or old flowerbeds.

"Our priority is anything right around the house," Gifford said. "Those are often something easy someone can do in 15 to 20 minutes."

For homeowners with a lot of land, thinning trees and ensuring branches from different trees don't touch each other go a long way, Gifford said.

A lot of people know they need to do something to protect their homes from wildfires, Gifford said, but they often overlook the details.

Since launching, Gifford said he's done a lot of home visits. Within the first week of launch, he's had more than 150 site visits in Spokane County.

As the state prepares for a difficult summer, Franz is encouraging everyone to try to mitigate risk to wildfire spread.

"Every year we're in a better place than the last because we've learned," Franz said. "But at the same time, the hotter and dryer it gets, the worse it also gets."

Homeowners should make sure their property is fire ready and make an evacuation plan in case a fire spreads in their neighborhood, Gifford said.

"It's not if, it's when a wildfire will be coming into your neighborhood," he said. "You want to be ready for when that happens."