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Q&A: Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz on bill to fund wildfire suppression, forest health

In the midst of all the budget-related activity this week, a bill (SB 5996) was introduced Thursday that would create a dedicated funding source for wildfire suppression and forest health in Washington State.

The day the bill was introduced, Wire reporter Sara Gentzler talked to Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz about why the Department of Natural Resources feels the funding source is needed, how the money would be used, and where the money would come from.

Sara Gentzler: According to the DNR, wildfire suppression costs alone have averaged $153 million per year over the past five years. How does the current funding situation impact Washington’s ability to effectively suppress and prevent wildfires?

Hilary Franz: Let me actually start by correcting: It’s $153 million over the last 10 years. The last five years have been even more significant fire seasons. So, annually, the cost is even higher than that $153 million.

But let me just state, from the beginning, the challenge we have and how we believe the latest budget proposal is really going to be helpful in solving it.

We all know that, after the choking smoke of wildfires these last few years, people are asking, ‘Is this the new normal?’ It is my job to do everything possible to make certain that this isn’t the new normal, these catastrophic wildfires that we face.

Last year, we had 1,850 fires, alone — the most in Washington State’s history. And 40 percent of those fires were west of the Cascades. Just last week, in the middle of March, we saw 50 wildfires. Last week. Middle of March. Forty-nine of those were west of the Cascades.

This is no longer an east-side issue or west-side issue. It is, very much, a Washington State issue. And, without action, this will be our new normal. And we will continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year — not only fighting those fires, but we will also face the significant cost to our economy of losing our forest lands that are critical for our rural communities and economies, and our homes.

Today, we are thrilled to have a groundbreaking proposal. The first our state has done that will have a dedicated funding source for wildfire suppression and forest health. Dedicated funding, which is crucial for us to be able to invest in the long-term, transformational solutions. We need to protect our communities, build a 21st-century wildfire fighting force, and make the critical investment in restoring the health of our forests.

SG: At Re-Wire, you talked about how the number of fires in Washington had more than doubled over 10 years. But in that time, the total budget had only increased by something like $2.5 million dollars.

HF: That’s right.

SG: Your budget request this year, for this purpose, was $55 million. It’s estimated that this new source would raise much more than that, at $62.5 million, annually. How would that kind of funding tangibly change the way Washington treats wildfires?

HF: Remember that the funding is for both wildfire and forest health. It’s one, big bucket of funding that will really address not only the response, but also the inherent problem — which is that we have 2.7 million acres of forests in poor health.

The funding for the wildfire side will fund and almost double our firefighting force. Currently, I oversee the largest wildfire fighting team in the state, and we have 43 full-time firefighters. That’s it. This would enable us to add 30 more full-time firefighters to our team, where we can actually build the training and the expertise and the positions that we need.

And, when those firefighters are not fighting fires, they will be doing forest-health training — getting on top of the dead, dying, diseased trees, which is what’s causing our catastrophic wildfires.

This will also enable us to increase our eight helicopters we have right now that have, largely, been utilized to fight fires on the east side of our state. But, the reality is that, last year, 40 percent of our fires were west of the Cascades. We now have to use the same amount of resources we’ve had to fight fewer fires, fewer months of fires, and in fewer locations, now to cover the entire state.

This would enable us to add two more helicopters, as well as expand the training, so that we can build in our local, state, and federal firefighters being trained together even more comprehensively. And, it enables us to provide more resources for our local fire districts.

The other key piece of this is that, like I said before, we have 2.7 million acres of forest in eastern Washington alone that are dying due to disease, insect infestation…We have to get on the ground in those forests and treat them, remove the dead, dying, diseased trees, be able to remove the smaller-diameter trees, and really create more resilient forests.

This would enable us to treat 1.25 million acres. And, with a dedicated funding stream, we believe — if the funding goes directly to forest health — that we can rapidly increase the 20-year plan and, potentially, get it done in 10-15 years.

SG: Without a dedicated funding source, what do you think is at-risk and where would the funding be coming from?

HF: Without a dedicated funding source, we continue to do what we’ve been doing. Which is, year-by-year, fighting for increased funding resources for wildfire suppression and increased funding resources for forest health.

Every year, it’s a gamble on whether we’re going to get those resources.

Fortunately, over the last two years, we’ve been more successful in getting forest-health funding. But, our wildfire-suppression funding has largely stayed flat, as you stated in the earlier numbers.

We know that, given the increasing wildfires and given the forest health crisis, it’s only getting worse if we’re not having those investments upfront.

What I am very clear about saying — and I think this is really important — we are going to pay for our wildfires and our dying forests. Regardless. Whether the funding comes or not. The question is whether we’re going to pay to react, or we’re going to pay to be proactive, protect our communities, protect our landscapes, and protect our firefighters.

SG: How soon would you expect citizens to physically feel or see a difference if these ramped-up efforts begin?

HF: We believe they’re going to start to see it by the end of the year, first of all, in the context of forest health. We’ll be working really fast to get more forest health projects on the ground, so we can remove the dead, dying, diseased trees.

We also will be able to — as soon as we get the appropriation, which usually comes mid-year — we will work to try to get the resources and capacity for additional firefighters.

In truth, it’s really going to be making a significant difference next year. We’ll be able to have done the planning and investment to have the equipment upfront, to have the firefighters upfront, and to be able to pre-position them throughout the state, in those areas that we know are more prone for fires, so we can get on them faster.

And, our state will also be able to see, very quickly, forest health projects that are happening. We’ve already been doing them as fast as we can, but with limited dollars. We will rapidly accelerate that. We have already planned the forest health treatments through 2019, 2020, and 2021. We just need the funding to get them done.

I think the important message is: With these investments, we actually save money and we can also generate money. Because, when we treat our forests — we remove the dead, dying, diseased trees with the smaller diameter — we can send that product to the mills, we can make product. If we don’t, all we’re doing is costing the state in fighting those fires, costing the state in the economy in the context of smoke, and impact to our landscape burned up, and we’re losing that product and value that could be economic opportunity.

SG: Onto where this new, dedicated source would get its funding. It’s an increase of .52 percent for the tax on property and casualty insurance premiums — which would include premiums for homeowners, flood, fire, and auto insurance, etc. It’s technically a tax on insurers, but it would, presumably, be passed on to the insured. In anticipation of pushback you might get on that, how do you justify that funding mechanism?

HF: I would say, we know that this request is — we’re not making it lightly. We’ve never had such a significant crisis that we’ve faced.

I would say, too, first, that while we know it’s an impact, we believe that it’s a smaller impact in the context — approximately $5 for every $1,000 in property insurance premiums. I don’t say that lightly, but I wanted to make sure it’s clear the magnitude, in the context.

I think what’s really important — and I’m going to say it again — we are already paying. This state — our public, our communities — are already paying hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fire suppression. Like you pointed out, we’re paying $154 million annually, and sometimes that is $250 million, and sometimes $300 million. So, we’re already paying that cost out.

If we have these resources up front, we can be proactive, and we can turn it into economic opportunity, by preventing our trees from smoke and flames, and we can also keep the cost of that damage down, the size of the fires down, because we’re quicker to respond, we’re closer to the fire, we have more resources to respond with. And that will prevent the damage to homeowners, to our forests, our lands, and our communities, and to our economy.

SG: Do you expect there’s a reason why, right now, it’s sponsored by only Democratic Senators and there hasn’t been bipartisan buy-in?

HF: Obviously, the Senate Democrats have been working on their budget, and so a lot of this work has been happening very, very quickly. It’s been a very busy session.

I think you’re going to find that we have broad support — first, in the public — for this, because everybody realizes how significant this crisis is. I think there will be an opportunity, as we talk to legislators, both in the House and the Senate and [on] both sides of the aisle, that there will be, definitely, an interest in making sure we are fully funding our forest health and wildfire.

And especially if we can work aggressively to even reduce the amount of time it takes us to treat those 1.25 million acres of forest. If we can even cut that 20 years down to 10-15 years, we are talking about making a significant dent in the damage that wildfires are causing us. And, we can also create a significant opportunity for growing our rural communities and economies.

SG: With that, what’s your gut feeling about this ultimately passing this session?

HF: I am confident. But, I know that, while confidence is important and this is a proposal that is — I believe — taking a very significant problem and creating a win for our communities and for our economy and for the health of our people, that, obviously, it is going to take a very focused, concerted effort, all the way to the end of session.

As my firefighters would say, ‘When we think we might have knocked a fire down and it’s completely out, you can never assume or presume that until you’ve, literally, stomped and walked every part of that ground to make sure there’s no flames left smoldering.’

And we will make sure that, in this context, we are going to work all the way through the end of session to make sure that we are delivering the kinds of funding resources we need to truly be able to prevent the catastrophic wildfires we’ve seen and ensure we’re providing the critical support we need for our communities and for this state — to protect them and our firefighters.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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