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Lands commissioner seeks $55 million for wildfires, forests

Vantage wildfire (KOMO News file photo)

TUMWATER, Wash. — Washington's Public Lands Commissioner wants lawmakers to increase the amount of money that the state spends to fight wildfires and prevent future blazes.

Hilary Franz, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources, is asking the Legislature for $55 million for wildfire response and prevention for the two-year budget that begins in 2019.

"Wildfires in Washington state’s forests have impacted all of us," she said Wednesday before unveiling her proposal. "Hot, dry conditions coupled with diseased and dying forests are leading to more catastrophic wildfires every single year."

Her proposal would add two helicopters, provide more training and better equipment and add 30 permanent full-time positions to the state's largest wildland firefighting force. She's also seeking more money to improve the health of forests so they're less likely to burn as well as help private landowners reduce fire risks.

"Our hope is that we’re going to see a significant difference in the results of those forest health treatments, but it is gonna take time," Franz said.

"We’re seeing over the last 5 years alone that the wildfires are now something that is longer than 2 or 3 months and now are frankly wildfire years. And we’re predicting that is likely to be the same for the foreseeable future," she added.

Franz said the department's current fleet of helicopters helped keep more than 95% of the state's wildfires to less than 10 acres. DNR has responded to about 1,700 wildfires this year, Franz said. Those fires burned nearly 500 square miles in the state.

"After my first season, I was hooked," said seasonal DNR firefighter Tommy Matsuda.

The helicopters help provide an initial attack.

Firefighters like Matsuda can get in quickly to draw containment lines.

The problem is he's only able to work about 6 months out of the year, he said.

"Getting engine lead full-time, it would help with retention. I mean I’m one of the most experienced engine leads in my district," said Matsuda, who is 24 years old. "People that want to stay – It can be difficult because we work for however many years, don’t get many years, and then we end up living. And so all of the experience that we had is now gone when we leave."

Matsuda said he's seen the fire seasons steadily grow more intense over the past 5 seasons.

More wildfires are burning west of the Cascades, which can lead to smoky, hazy days like the ones parts of the Puget Sound region experienced during the summer, Franz said.

State Representative Tom Dent, a Republican who represents the 13th Legislative District, said he believes his colleagues are now starting to understand that wildfires are a statewide problem. Not just a problem in central and eastern Washington.

"That's exactly right. They're getting it," he told KOMO News.

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