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Washington’s wildfire budget: Is prevention being shortchanged?

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OLYMPIA, Wash. — It’s quite clear that the wildfire seasons here in Washington are getting longer, more destructive, and more expensive.  In the last two years alone it was $128 million, which is way up from the previous biennial budget.

But State Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has warned that we are short-changing prevention, among other things, and can therefore expect more devastation and perhaps even more tragedies in the future.

Goldmark, who is in charge of preventing and fighting fires on millions of acres of state property, warns that the Legislature is tying his hands when it comes to doing his job.  Here’s what he told The Olympian newspaper just last month after lawmakers passed a new two-year budget.

“Even in the face of (the current fires) and the threat to public safety that those fires contained, the Legislature didn’t seem to care about the public’s safety at all…I’m very frustrated that the Legislature doesn’t understand their role in protecting the public, and that a small investment now can prevent that public and private damage.”  (The Olympian 7/3/15)

Here’s a closer look at just what is frustrating Goldmark.  For the 2015-2017 Dept. of Natural Resources overall budget, Goldmark was requesting $74 million, which would include firefighters, equipment, helicopters, etc.  But the final budget approved by lawmakers included only $60 million for DNR.

Here’s the situation with the separate capital budget:

  • DNR Forest Health Request (thinning, etc.):  $20 million
  • Final Budget: $10 million

Even if Goldmark had gotten all of what he wanted, it probably would have been too late for this fire season.  But given that things are expected to get worse in the years ahead, he worries that more needs to be done.