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By LaVendrick Smith
WNPA Olympia News Bureau 

Quick dollars for wildfire suppression critical to containment, committee hears

 

Scott Hunter

Firefighters responded quickly to this wildfire in Delano last July and kept it small. But sometimes conditions spread wildfire ahead of local firefighters, who then ask for more equipment, possibly aircraft. A bill introduced in the legislature would give the state Department of Natural Resources a half hour to answer such a call.

OLYMPIA-When a fire broke out in Asotin County last summer, Noel Hardin said a delay in state resources led to a bigger, more costly blaze.

The fire chief for District 1 in the county says that by the time the fire was contained it cost $2 million to fight, but could have been much cheaper with faster support from the state.

"The helicopter bill at that time would've been somewhere between three and four thousand dollars," Hardin said.

One state lawmaker wants to make it easier for local fire districts, like Fire District 1 in

Asotin County, to access resources in emergencies.

House Bill 2596 would create the Local Wildland Fire Suppression Account managed by the Department of Natural Resources to provide local entities with immediate assistance in responding to wildfires.

The bill earned a pubic hearing before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Feb. 26.

Under the proposed legislation, DNR would have half an hour to respond to a local fire district's request for funds, either through direct assistance from the account or by reimbursing the entity for use of its own resources. DNR could also release assets such as aviation services to the entity for immediate response to the fire.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, proposed the bill after consulting with Hardin, who reached out to her about issues related to last year's wildfire season, the worst fire season on record in state history.

"We had a lot of fires that could've been contained, but were not, because of lack of access or certainty of funding," Dye said at a hearing on the bill Tuesday.

She said the legislation is aimed to help fire districts, specifically in small, rural areas that don't have access to the assets and resources DNR has. She's hopeful a fast response will help prevent fires from turning into the type of catastrophic events that occurred last summer in the state.

"It's not necessarily to fight every fire," Dye said. "But rather to fight those fires deemed to be critical enough to have larger assets brought in."

DNR supports the intent of the legislation, but has some concerns. Mary Verner, deputy of wildfire administration for the department, said one concern is the availability of resources the department can provide.

Verner said aviation services would be the most helpful for the small rural locations the bill aims to help, but those services are often in high demand during the fire season. The department wants the bill to recognize that providing such services could be a hard task.

"We just want to make sure we have a common understanding, logistically, of the expectations with regard to delivering those assets," Verner said.

Criticism was also raised about how much the bill would cost the state. Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, is concerned the 30-minute window is too little time to assess if the fire is bad enough to request state resources, and that the requests would prove costly.

"The state is going to have a big obligation under this bill," Van De Wege said.

Dye said the account would prevent the state from paying so much for wildfire assistance, in comparison to last season when the state paid $150 million more than budgeted for wildfires. She says the bill would provide fire districts with the ability to stop fires before they become bigger and more expensive.

"That's our goal. This bill will reduce the number of large, catastrophic fires in our state," she said."

Hardin agrees creating an account would help save the state money in the long run.

"It has the potential to be win-win for the state and local districts," he said. "If we keep doing things the way we've been doing, then we're going to get the same costly results."

Any local suppression entity that receives funding from the account is required to satisfy a 10-percent cost match for the amount of money provided, the committee staff summary revealed.

However, that cost match requirement is not applicable if the local suppression entity is able to contain the fire within the first six hours.

The cost match requirement can be satisfied through a monetary payment back into the Account or through the provision of in-kind services. All cost match payments must be provided within a year of receiving funds from the account.

The Local Wildland Fire Liaison may serve as a mediator in any disputes between the DNR and a local suppression entity regarding cost match payments, under terms in the legislative proposal.

The bill is scheduled for an executive (closed) session in the House Committee on Agriculture & Natural Resources at 10 a.m. Feb. 2.

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter LaVendrick Smith at lavendricksmith@gmail.com; follow him on Twitter: @LaVendrickS)

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