The failure of the legislature to pass a capital budget leaves Washington’s state forests with an increasing risk of catastrophic wildfires.
The state department of Natural Resources says a recent survey showed it has about 2.7 million acres of forests in Washington that are in poor health.
“They’ve got disease or beetle infestation or have been stricken by the droughts of the last few years. And that leaves them vulnerable to wildfire,” said DNR spokesman Joe Smillie.
The department asked for $15 million this year to thin out forests that have been neglected. But Smillie says without a capital budget, the department can’t do the work. That means state firefighters can expect to see the same intense fires they’ve been facing over the past decade.
“When you have forests that are clogged with these diseased trees, they burn a lot faster, a lot hotter, a lot more explosively,” Smillie said.
And fighting fires is ultimately more expensive and more dangerous than prevention and restoration work.
An expansion of the state’s Firewise communities program, which educates homeowners about how to protect their properties from wildfires, will also go unfunded. The capital budget would have funded 40 additional Firewise communities in eastern Washington.
It's a relatively simple program that helps residents make their homes safer through things like tree and brush removal.
Smillie says it clearly works. Most recently it saved several homes in the town of Carlton, in Okanogan County.
"Where a fire came through, burned really hot and fast and the Okanogan County Emergency manager flew a drone over after the airplanes had been landed for the night," Smilie said.
"And you could see black all around these little islands of green that were the houses that were still standing."
New money in the capital budget would fund thinning and restoration work in four fire-prone regions. It would also put veterans to work on these programs and fund re-planting in areas burned by wildfires in recent years.