Commissioner Franz, Senate Democrats Release Historic Wildfire and Forest Health Funding Bill
March 28, 2019
New dedicated funding source for wildfire suppression and forest health
Today, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Senate Democrats presented legislation to reduce Washington’s wildfire risk and create healthier forests.
This groundbreaking proposal establishes a dedicated revenue source and raises $62.5 million annually to fund wildfire suppression and prevention.
“Never before have our wildland firefighters had to ask for so much, but never before have we faced a wildfire crisis of this magnitude,” said Commissioner Franz. “In the face of this crisis, we need bold, forward-thinking investments to keep our forests healthy, our air clean, and our communities safe from fire.”
“We're seeing wildfires that are bigger and harder to contain, and we're seeing them far more often,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), the sponsor of Senate Bill 5996. “What should have been beautiful skies over the Olympic Peninsula last summer were gray and overcast. The air around Puget Sound was so unhealthy, people had to stay indoors. In Eastern Washington, people lost homes and other valuable property. If we don't take action now, this is what we can expect every summer in the years to come."
“Year after year, we rely on our state’s rainy day fund to reimburse catastrophic fire response. It’s time for the state to plan responsibly in order to protect communities and invest in healthy forests” said Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge), chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.
A Statewide Problem
More than 2.2 million homes in Washington are exposed to wildfire. And wildfire suppression costs have averaged $153 million per year over the past five years.
Suppression costs make up only 9 percent of the total costs of wildfires once lost business, infrastructure, habitat, timber, agriculture, disaster recovery, and health impacts are considered.
Last year was the Department of Natural Resources’ busiest fire season ever. DNR, the state’s wildfire fighting agency, responded to more than 1,850 wildfires, and 440,000 acres burned across Washington. Forty percent of those fires were west of the Cascades.
Already this month, our state has had 50 unseasonal wildfires, 49 of them in Western Washington, including one in Cowlitz County that forced the evacuation of about 90 homes.
Funding Source Has Wildfire Nexus
Dedicated funding comes from increasing the tax on insurance premiums for property and casualty insurance from 2 percent to 2.52 percent.
This 0.52 percent increase is approximately $5 per $1,000 of property and casualty insurance premiums.
This will generate $62.5 million annually for wildfire suppression and prevention. Revenues will be deposited into a new account, the Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Account.
“The question is whether we pay now to be proactive and protect our communities or whether we pay higher costs later when our forests burn and our air is filled with smoke,” said Commissioner Franz.
“We are anxious to see the bill as it comes over from the Senate. We agree that there is a need to make significant investments to prevent wildfires and to help communities across the state that bear the cost of responding quickly to wildfires,” said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “Every year we are faced with finding money in our state budget to cover the cost of wildfires, which are increasing, and this would provide dedicated funding to help reduce wildfires and the impacts that these fires have on forests, communities, and public health.”
“Thirteen years on a National Incident Management Team and 10 years as a Fire Chief in North Central Washington have given me a clear perspective of the devastation caused by wildfire,” said Mike Burnett, Chief (Ret.), Chelan Fire District 1. “I strongly support the proactive approach of treating forests to assist with the management of wildfire; healthier, thinned forests allow for more suppression opportunities. We also need the personnel and resources to enable a quicker and more effective response.”
At the start of the legislative session, DNR laid out budget priorities to accomplish the following:
- Fully fund the Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan, which focuses on fire suppression, preparedness, and prevention.
- Fully fund the 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which targets 1.25 million acres of federal, state, tribal, and private forest for intensive restoration through selective thinning and prescribed burns.
- Create a dedicated funding source for wildfire suppression and prevention.
- Provide additional resources for wildfire suppression.
For the current legislative session, the wildland fire protection plan funding requests include two additional helicopters, 30 new full-time firefighters, more specialized firefighter training, the expansion of camp crews, and community outreach specialists throughout the state to help educate residents about how to prevent wildfires and protect their neighborhoods.
Restoring Forest Health
More than 2.7 million acres of Eastern Washington forests are in poor health, leaving them vulnerable to wildfires.
A recent study found that every $1 spent on forest rehabilitation saves $1.45 in firefighting costs and creates $5.70 in economic activity.
Actively managing forests restores them to a more natural and resilient state, reducing wildfire risk and creating jobs in rural economies.
Senate Bill 5996 will soon be available here.
Washington State’s Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan available here. Plan summary available here.
Photo of Commissioner Franz available here.
Wildfire B-roll available here.
Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Public Information Officer for Sen. Van De Wege
Senate Democratic Caucus Communications
Public Information Officer for Sen. Rolfes
Senate Democratic Caucus Communications