OLYMPIA — In the 1990s, Washington lost 86,000 acres a year to wildfires. By 2015 the average had climbed to nearly a half million acres a year. Last year? 812,000 acres of forests and grassland were destroyed by wildfires, not to mention homes, businesses, and lives.
Tuesday afternoon in virtual Olympia, lawmakers in the state House OK’d a bipartisan 20-year plan to turn those numbers around. Sponsored by state Rep. Larry Springer (D-45, Kirkland), and developed working across the partisan aisle and in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), HB 1168 attacks the worsening wildfire problem in a variety of ways.
“The idea that we should just wait for a bigger snowpack or a wet summer is not a plan,” Springer said Tuesday. “It’s delusion. These fires don’t have to be the new normal. We can do something, and we have to do something.”
The overall goal, according to Springer, is to establish healthier forests that will be more resistant to wildfires. One important element will be to thin Washington forests, getting rid of sick and dead trees and years of brushy undergrowth on the forest floor. Crews will also create space in the forest canopies so fires cannot spread from tree to tree so easily. Much of this work will be performed by teams recruited locally from traditionally marginalized communities.
The bill also calls for the state to modernize its fire-fighting equipment and get rid of outdated tools. Washington currently fights wildfires, for example, using helicopters that flew in the Vietnam War. DNR’s forest-mapping would also be improved if the bill becomes law, enhancing preparedness and responsiveness to wildfires.
“At the end of the last decade, wildfires were pumping 40 million tons of carbon into our skies, the equivalent of 8 million additional cars rolling on Washington highways,” Springer said. “We need our trees to trap carbon, not spew it into the atmosphere. This bill will help us accomplish this, and the time to do it is now.”
HB 1168 left the House with a 96-0 vote and will now be taken up by the Senate. The 2021 Legislature is set to adjourn on April 25.
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