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Governor, DNR 2016 budget proposals seek wildfire fighting, recovery funds


OLYMPIA — When wildfires ignited around Twisp last summer, Meg Donohue said her coffee-roaster business shifted from being a popular gathering spot for the community to a place for up-to-the-minute news.

“We found ourselves kind of being a hub for information, and a way for people to connect with each other, and find out what’s going on,” said Donohue, a Twisp resident and co-owner of Blue Star Coffee Roasters.

The coffee retailer is one of many locally-owned businesses in Twisp that felt the impact of last year’s wildfire season – Washington’s worst fire season on record. The store’s revenue for the month was cut in half, but Donohue was able to keep Blue Star open during the fire, unlike other businesses in the area.

“A lot of businesses were just closed for a couple of weeks, during the biggest revenue-making part of their year,” she said.

According to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), 1,541 fires were reported over summer 2015, scorching more than 1 million acres of land, and costing the state more than $150 million over what was budgeted for fighting wildfires.

In his 2016 supplemental budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee is asking the Legislature to cover the remaining cost of last year’s season and provide an additional $29 million in total aid, response and prevention for wildfires, after the Legislature budgeted $27.2 million last year.

“We’ve called for $29 million to add capacity to fight fires in upcoming years, as well as to help some of the communities that were so adversely affected by these horrendous fires last summer,” Inslee said Jan. 7 during a pre-legislative session briefing hosted by the Associated Press.

Inslee’s budget proposal aims at continued recovery efforts for home and land owners who suffered damage from the summer’s fires, in addition to helping prepare for future wildfires.

His proposal contains about $12 million toward prevention and response efforts, half of what the DNR had requested in October.

The department is asking the Legislature for  $24.279 million for wildfire prevention and response. DNR’s request includes training more firefighters and providing better radio communication during wildfire events. A major part of the department’s proposal is $6.1 million for grants to help local fire districts modernize their ability to fight fires.

Don Waller, fire chief on paid leave for Fire District 6 in Twisp, said quick access to resources is one factor that limited their ability to fight Twisp’s fires that killed three U.S. Forest Service firefighters and injured another last year.

Waller said local fire districts rely on DNR and the U.S. Forest Service to supply additional help and resources, such as helicopters and fire retardants and, in some instances, he wishes those resources were available sooner.

“Any fire district in this (Okanogan) county can’t afford to hire a helicopter for an hour, let alone a 12-hour shift,” he said.

Waller said he’d also like to see fire-equipment upgrades and more paid staff at local fire districts.

Donohue said that, during her eight years as a business owner in Twisp, she has become accustomed to the fire season, but the intensity of the past two seasons is alarming to her.

“They feel radically different,” Donohue said. “They haven’t been forest fires. They’ve been fire storms, and it’s so different.”

Joe Smillie, DNR’s public information officer for geology, aquatics and tribal affairs, said recent fire seasons are the result of the droughts in the state, leaving trees and plants drier than normal.

“The situation was set up when everything dried out,” Smillie said. “We get a lot of fires; they just burn more intensely because you have that dry timber.”

Smillie noted a big problem in some fires was the presence of species of trees non-native to the area, helping fuel the fires. He said a large portion of the funds DNR is asking for would go toward forest restoration in an effort to make forests more resilient.

He said fires are going to always happen, but managing them is the priority. “It has been burning for quite a few centuries out there; that’s not real new,” he said. “It’s just making it so they’re not so big and destructive. That’s the key.”

The Legislature is preparing to review the governor’s and DNR’s budget requests in committee hearings this week, as lawmakers convened in Olympia Monday to launch the 2016 legislative session.

Follow reporter LaVendrick Smith on Twitter @LaVendrickS.

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