Bill to create fund to battle wildfires passes state House

A bill to create a dedicated fund to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington easily passed the state House of Representatives on Tuesday and will be sent to the state Senate.

The bill, promoted by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, passed 96-0 in Olympia.

House Bill 1168 is sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and would create a dedicated account of $125 million every two years to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration, and support community resilience.

"Lawmakers realize, after years of watching our towns, forests, and grazing lands go up in smoke, that it’s time to act," Franz said.

"The unanimous vote shows you that this is not just an Eastern or Western Washington issue. This is an East and West. This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. All of us believe we have to do something together to help protect Washington state. Help protect the people, help protect the people of Washington state, and protect our firefighters," Franz told Q13 News on Tuesday.

The bill follows a historically destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 800,000 acres burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden. For two of the last three years, Washington has experienced the worst air quality in the world due to wildfire.

"We have to do something. The idea that we should just wait for a bigger snowpack or wetter summer is not a plan," Springer said.

"Many of the biggest impacts have been on the lowest income residents in my community," Kretz said. "Wildfire has created, essentially, a homelessness crisis."

Franz said the state already spends an average of $150 million a year to fight wildfires.

The number of acres burned has increased dramatically in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020.

A similar attempt to use a surtax on home insurance premiums to raise money to fight wildfires failed in the Legislature last year.

The bill proposes spending $75 million every two years to hire and train more firefighters, buy more airplanes and helicopters, improve leadership and improve fire detection systems. Franz noted that some of the 10 helicopters in the state’s firefighting fleet date to the Vietnam War, and have the bullet holes to prove it.

Franz also wants to spend $37 million to restore 1.25 million acres of forest lands to make them more resistant to wildfires.

Finally, her plan calls for spending $12 million to reduce fuels and create firebreaks that would prevent communities like Malden from being wiped out by fast-moving flames.