OLYMPIA - In pitching new legislation now in front of the Washington Legislature, Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has coined a catch phrase: “Prevent the Evergreen State from turning charcoal black,” she says.

The legislation, which aims at addressing wildland fire, forest health and community fire resiliency across the state has garnered support for its goal of addressing the threat of wildfire at a landscape level from the Colville Tribes through testimony of the Colville Business Council Chair Rodney Cawston.

In public testimony on the bill, Jan. 22, in the House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, Cawston and Franz both remembered the long Labor Day Weekend fires that burned 300,000 acres across the state in the matter of a couple days and over 200,000 acres on the Colville Indian Reservation alone.

“As we are in the process of assisting our families and rebuilding after these damages, it has become overwhelmingly apparent of our need to work together,” said Cawston. “Wildland fires do not have jurisdictional boundaries. Poor forest health and climate change are things we all face, whether these lands are federal, tribal or state.”

Across the state in 2020, Franz stated during the testimony, there were 1,600 different fire starts, 812,000 acres burned and 300 homes lost.

During the Cold Springs Fire and Inchelium Complex Fires alone on the Colville Reservation, 80 homes were lost and 208,251 acres burned, told Cawston.

“These catastrophic fires do not need to be our future,” said Franz. “They do not need to be the new normal. The choice before us is a simple one. We can either continue to react in the face of smoke and flames, or we can be proactive and invest in the resources needed to give our forest, our communities and our firefighters a fighting chance. This is not a question about whether we pay for wildfires or we pay for something else. We are already paying on average $153 million per year to fight these fires.”

Franz noted part of the problem comes as allocation of fire fighting resources from the federal government and neighboring states are often spread thin across the region, and the new legislation looks to alleviate that by increasing the number of firefighters and firefighting resources within the state.

“Last year showed us we need to be more self-reliant as a state,” said Franz. “When 56 fires erupted on both sides of the Cascades in just 24 hours, our calls for help went out but there was no one to answer that. We had skeleton crews on every fire across the state because when we called for help, those other firefighters on the state and federal level were battling blazes in Oregon, California and Colorado. With our fleet of Vietnam era helicopters fully deployed – 10 of them – we tried to find additional aircraft to assist us, but none were available. They were already fighting fires in other states. Washington was once again on its own.”

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) and Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wacounda).

“My communities back home have really bore the worst of it,” said Kretz, who’s home district includes the western half of the Colville Indian Reservation. “Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres in single counties over the last few years, with tremendous loss, tremendous costs to those communities, and we have done some things on this committee over the years to make improvements. We have tweaked things. We’ve changed some things. We’ve improved a whole bunch of things. We’ve done good work, but I think this bill is a more comprehensive solution. It’s time to go big, folks, and I think it is a good effort. I’m sure there will be lots of tweaks…but I appreciate the effort that went into this bill.”

Amongst other aims, HB-1168 calls for the legislature to create a dedicated account for wildfire response, forest restoration and community resiliency and the bill further asks the legislature to fund that account with $125 million in each biennium.

In a previous press conference, Franz noted the bill calls for $75.2 million to be dedicated to fire response over the biennium, including hiring 100 new firefighters and expanding the state’s air fleet; $31.4 million to be dedicated to forest health; $5.9 million to workforce development; and $12.6 million to be dedicated to community resilience projects.

The bill also calls for the state Department of Natural Resources to create a mapping tool to identify high risk wildfire properties and in order to “optimize forest health work at a landscape scale.”

In Indian Country across the state, Franz noted, the bill works directly with tribes.

“We know that wildfire and wildfire smoke threatens every Washingtonian but they threaten some Washingtonians more than others,” said Franz. “This bill recognizes that we are in this together, east and west, urban and rural, and it recognizes that we must have an equity and environmental justice line in this work. Specifically as to our tribes, we work closely with our tribal partners. Many of our tribes have been hit very, very hard by wildfires… This will specifically bring critical wildfire firefighter resources, training and equipment to our tribal communities. It will also bring resources for forest restoration work and helping those communities become more resilient to these fires to hardening of their homes and hardening of their communities.”

The language of the bill calls for tribes to participate as part as a to-be established Forest Health Advisory Committee, the bill further notes tribes would have access to the to-be established special account under the state Treasury.

The bill also calls for the state to partner with federally recognized tribes to “expand use of the Tribal Forest Protection Act,” a 2004 federal law that authorizes tribes to propose stewardship contracting and other projects on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.

A second hearing on HB-1168 was held in executive committee, Jan. 28. 

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