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Wildfire reduction bill moves to Senate

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| March 16, 2021 1:00 AM

The past year showed how devastating wildfires can be, especially to eastern Washington towns, such as Malden. Some lawmakers are addressing the issue with a bill aimed at forest health.

House Bill 1168 would require the state Department of Natural Resources to create a mapping tool to pinpoint the location of small forest landowners who may be in or near areas at risk of wildfires, according to the bill’s text.

A Wildfire Response, Forest Restoration and Community Resilience Account would also be established for the purposes of wildfire preparedness, prevention and protection, according to the bill’s text.

HB 1168 passed the House in a 96-0 vote March 9. The bill had its first reading in the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee on Friday.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, is HB 1168’s primary sponsor. Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Dent said in an interview with the Herald HB 1168 would help forests in the state in multiple ways — the bill would help strengthen wildfire suppression efforts and help the state manage the forests better.

“We have dead and dying trees … and when a fire gets in there you can’t stop it,” Dent said. “It’s just out of control.”

Dent said he has been a part of efforts to address wildfire issues since he was elected to the Legislature. A bill like HB 1168 is long overdue because the state’s response to wildfires is “not working,” he said.

“(Wildfires) threaten our communities,” Dent said. “They threaten a lot of our recreation areas, they threaten our well-being (and) they fill the air full of smoke.”

Springer said during the virtual floor debate March 9 the state has spent about $153 million per year for the last several years to fight wildfires. But that does not account for the number of lives that were lost.

“(In) the last few years we’ve lost five lives,” Springer said. “Four brave firefighters in Twisp and, just last fall, a 1-year-old child trying to outrun the flames with his parents … we have to do something.”

Springer said waiting for a bigger snowpack or having a wet summer is “delusion.” HB 1168 would help the state obtain better equipment to fight fires, and the bill can help with thinning the forests by getting rid of dead trees so fires do not spread easily.

Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, said during the virtual floor debate March 9 the farmworkers in his district are affected by wildfires the most. Farmworkers do not want to work amid smoke and ash.

“We need to do something about this. It has been going on for too long,” Ybarra said. “I think this is the right bill at the right time to pass forward.”

Under HB 1168, the DNR would work with the state Department of Corrections to expand existing programs, including a post-release program that helps formerly incarcerated people who worked in fire crews get jobs in wildfire suppression and forest management.

The DNR would also develop a Wildland Fire Aviation Support Plan to make the DNR’s wildland fire aviation program more effective and cost-efficient, according to the bill’s text.