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Senate passes bill to prevent and fight wildfires

April 10, 2021 GMT

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — The state Senate has unanimously passed a bill to create a dedicated fund to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington.

The bill, promoted by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, passed Friday in Olympia. House Bill 1168 now heads back to the House, which will accept or reject the changes made in the Senate. The 105-day legislative session is slated to adjourn April 25.

The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. It would provide $125 million every two years to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration and support community resilience.

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“Washington is on the brink of breaking the cycle of inaction that has created our wildfire crisis,” said Franz, who heads the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We are one step closer to protecting our communities, our forests and the air we breathe.”

The bill follows a destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 1,250 square miles (3,238 square kilometers) burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden. For two of the past three years, Washington has experienced the worst air quality in the world due to wildfires.

“Lawmakers have agreed that Washington taxpayers can’t afford to keep losing $150 million each year to out-of-control wildfires,” Franz said, noting the annual cost of fighting wildfires.

The state’s trajectory for wildfire severity has worsened in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 acres in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020.

The bill proposes spending $75 million every two years to hire and train more firefighters, buy more airplanes and helicopters, improve leadership and improve fire detection systems. Franz noted that some of the 10 helicopters in the state’s firefighting fleet date to the Vietnam War, and have the bullet holes to prove it.

Franz also wants to spend $37 million to restore 1.25 million acres of forest lands to make them more resistant to wildfires.

Finally, her plan calls for spending $12 million to reduce fuels and create firebreaks that would prevent communities like Malden from being wiped out by fast-moving flames.