Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz is looking to boost fire prevention efforts in the state with legislation that would add a charge to insurance policies to fund rehabilitation efforts in dying forests.
Franz spoke about House Bill 2413 as part of the 2020 Legislative Day for the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association in Olympia Feb. 13. The head of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) spoke about challenges her agency faces in fighting wildfires, something the bill aims to alleviate through bolstering resources and preventative activities in the state’s forests.
Franz explained that the legislation would place a surcharge on home and auto insurance policies in order to provide dedicated funding for the department’s firefighting efforts. Apart from funding training and equipment including helicopters for firefighters, money raised by the bill would also support forest rehabilitation efforts through selective burning and thinning, according to information from the DNR.
Franz said 2018 saw the biggest wildfire season by incidents in state history with 1850 fires, 40 percent of which were west of the cascades. The 440,000 acres that burned that year was less than half of the 1 million that burned in 2015, she added.
Though 2019 was a lighter fire season than other years, Franz said that $80 million was still spent on the 1165 fires last year. The average was about $153 million, which Franz later added was only 9 percent of the “true cost” to the economy and health to communities in the state.
“This isn’t a question of whether we are going to pay for it — we already are paying for it,” Franz said. “The question is whether we are going to pay to react in the face of smoke and flames and threats to our communities and firefighters, or are we going to pay up front to invest in the kinds of resources and activities we know will reduce our catastrophic fires?”
Franz said there were 2.2 million homes at risk from wildfires across the state. Locally, Southwest Washington has a large percentage of homes in wildland-urban interface zones, areas where residences are at risk from wildfire damage. The 18th Legislative District, which includes most of North County, had 80 percent of homes in the interface, according to data from the DNR, while the 20th Legislative District, which represents a large portion of Southwest Washington including Woodland, had 99 percent of homes in that designation — the most of any legislative district in the state, the data showed.
“You might say Paradise, California can’t happen here,” Franz said, referencing the 2018 Northern California fire that burned around 150,000 acres and caused more than $16 billion in damages. She said there were three communities in Washington that had a greater fire risk than Paradise — Rosalyn in Kittitas County, Cliffdell in Yakima County and Twin Lakes in Ferry County.
Franz said there were millions of acres of forest in the state that were dead or dying, mostly in Central and Eastern Washington though the department was starting to see similar conditions on the west side of the state.
“Fire is natural in our forests. What is not natural is how diseased and dead and weak those forests are, and how much fuel they have on (them),” Franz said. While historically a fire might burn 100 acres, given current conditions the same catalyst could cause fires a thousand times that size, she added.
“We believe we continue to waste money if we continue to be in a reaction mode to a crisis versus being up front,” Franz said.
The DNR’s plan would treat 1.25 million acres of forest over 20 years in Central and Eastern Washington alone, Franz said. To put into comparison, the department only treated 30,000 acres from 2005 to 2012.
Franz said the legislation had the endorsement from a number of agencies and groups, including firefighting associations, the American Lung Association and the Washington Building and Construction Trades among others. Outside of fire suppression Franz said the work provided wood resources that benefitted local communities.
As to why a surcharge on insurance, Franz explained there was a “direct nexus” between protection of one’s home and car from fire, adding the cost accounted to $15 annually for a household with one home and two cars.
“We believe this is a reasonable request,” Franz said, adding the DNR has “urged” insurance companies to commit to protecting homeowners, rather than dropping policies on homes that were at risk of wildfires.
Franz said the revenues would be $62.5 million annually, starting at the state level but precipitating to the local levels. Dedicated funding would take out uncertainties stemming from legislative biennial budgets that might not be focused on fire risk given current conditions.
“Every year I have to come back (to the Legislature) … if smoke’s not in the air in the Puget Sound region, nobody’s paying attention,” Franz remarked.
The bill, primarily sponsored by State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, with Clark County support from Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, currently sits in the House Appropriations Committee.