(The Center Square) – Washington Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz on Wednesday morning touted the success of efforts fighting blazes this wildfire season and said the Department of Natural Resources would press on in seeking even more funding from the state to keep that up in ensuing wildfire seasons.
“So we will be continuing to seek investments in the upcoming biennium,” Franz said from a press conference at Olympia Regional Airport in Tumwater. “As you know, House Bill 1168 gave us four [biennia] of around $125 million a biennium. We will be continuing to seek that $125 million in the upcoming legislative sessions to make sure that we are investing not only in the equipment…but also in the people that we need to manage those and to utilize them for effectiveness.”
Franz didn’t elaborate on how much more tax money she would be seeking.
Passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in 2021, HB 1168 commits $125 million every two years over the next four biennial budgets – $500 million in total – to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration and build community resilience.
“We will also be expanding our investments in our local fire districts,” Franz continued. “As we know, we are far greater and more successful when we work together, and we know that a lot of our local fire districts – every single corner of the state – do not have the resources to be able to really step up for the kind of longer fire seasons we have.”
Franz characterized this year’s fire season as “challenging and difficult,” providing statewide numbers to back up that assessment.
This year, there were more than 1,880 ignitions, she said, the second largest in the state’s history, just below the 2015 wildfire season’s more than 2,000 ignitions.
Despite those challenges, Franz said efforts to combat those ignitions were effective, with 165,365 acres burned this year. During the 2015 wildfire season, more than 1 million acres burned.
“This is well below that 2015, 1 million acres,” she reiterated. “It is also well below the 10-year average of 472,881 acres.”
Franz said 95% of wildfires in the state were kept below 10 acres this year, which is even better than DNR’s goal of keeping 90% of fires below 10 acres.
But the problem remains, with Franz noting several of the major wildfires that ravaged certain areas of the state this year, including the devastating Gray and Oregon Road wildfires in Spokane County in mid-August that destroyed 366 homes and claimed two lives, as well as the Tunnel 5 fire in the Columbia River Gorge in Skamania County near the Oregon border and the McEwan Fire just outside the city of Shelton in Mason County.
She also pointed out a concerning anomaly with this year’s wildfires.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that every year the risk to homes and the risk to communities continues to grow. And we saw it this year, as one of the most notable things about this year, which is that we had more fires on the west side of our state than we did in central and eastern Washington combined,” she said. “This has never been the case, and as we know, many of the fires that we saw were actually in more densely populated areas.”
Franz has announced her candidacy for governor in 2024.