Solving Washington’s fire crisis is on the ballot in Public Lands commissioner race

In one day, about 300,000 acres had burned. By the end of the week, it had doubled. That fated, fire-filled week in September has left a scar on Washington state, on the destroyed town of Malden, and in the hearts of two parents who lost their child.

What should be the firestorm of a century is becoming more frequent. More than ever before, the role of Public Lands Commissioner is to extinguish the threat.

This year, solving the crisis is on the ballot. Commissioner Hilary Franz, a Democrat, is running for a second term and says preventive actions must move at the speed of wildfire.

Looking back on September, and her first term, I asked if there’s anything she would have done differently.

“I needed to fight even harder for the resources that our firefighters and our communities need,” Franz said. “We’ve been pushing out the need for money and I've been accepting what we've gotten. I am, right now, to be frank, I'm going to war.”

For two years, the legislature has denied Franz a dedicated funding source for her forest health and wildfire plans. Her Republican challenger this year, former fisheries biologist Sue Kuehl Pederson, said she didn’t have the answer to how she would secure dedicated funding when Franz has been unsuccessful. 

“But I will also add that I don't see any reason why the state government, that is Department of Natural Resources, I don't see why they have to do all this work,” Pederson said. “I would be more inclined to put out bids to the private sector, logging companies, and ask them if they want to start thinning out our forests and doing the actual work, then I don't need the money for DNR employees to do it.”

Pederson said Franz lacked urgency and cited Franz’s 20-year forest health plan which she released in 2017 that calls for restoring 1.25 million acres of forest in 20 years. Asked how many acres Pederson would restore if elected to a 4-year term, she said her first focus would not be on treating the land. 

“I’m going to focus first on stopping spread, because that's the biggest problem we have,” Pederson said. “We can't just get rid of the excess fuel overnight, but we can start breaking up areas with firebreaks around them. That's the only thing that's going to keep us from going into the hundreds of thousands of acres of burned.”

Pederson said more logging and firebreaks would be her plan to combat worsening fire seasons. 

Franz is following and updating her forest health plan but said, given the conditions, 20 years is not fast enough. 

“We set a goal that is aggressive based on what we thought we'd get in resources,” Franz said. “We need to not accept what we're going to get in resources but we need to set our goal based on what must be done so that we can truly prevent the Evergreen State from becoming charcoal black and we can save lives.

“To lose a small child's life, a one-year-old boy's life as his family tried to outrun a fire, I think about it every single day, even when the skies are gray with clouds and rain. I'm going to be thinking about that next year when we're fighting for those resources at the state and the federal level.”

Franz said she would now like to complete the forest health treatment plan in 10 to 15 years.

From firefighting plans to climate change, policy and beliefs separate these two candidates. 

“You cannot be in this role and not see that the climate is changing. We are bent on the front lines of climate change every single day I've been in this job,” Franz said.

“I don't see that climate change, as it's defined now, as human-induced climate change, I haven't seen real consistency in the results when people look at the data. So I'm still, you know, considering it,” Pederson said.

While the role of Public Lands Commissioner deals with a great deal more than millions of acres of forest land and fire prevention, it is the most critical aspect of the job right now as wildfires become more dangerous and damaging. 

Overall, the Department of Natural Resources, which the commissioner heads, manages about 5.6 million acres of forest, aquatic and agricultural land and generates hundreds of millions of dollars for public schools and local services.