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Washington bill would add more money, equipment to wildfire response

Firefighters called for more resources to combat Washington's devastating wildfire season in 2020, but there were none left. A new bill aims to fix that.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — At the beginning of the 2020 wildfire season, Spokane firefighter Jeff Wainwright started to wonder if it would turn out to be what he called a "normal" season. 

"And then the end of summer hit, and it just exploded," Wainwright said. "and you could tell when we were sending people, we weren't necessarily having some catastrophic fires on the east side, but the west side... That's something that you, we never saw 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago."

The fire season was so active that when it came time to call for extra resources, there were none available. 

"You could hear people making requests, and there was just nothing, nothing left... The bucket was empty," Wainwright said. "We were out of everything. There wasn't a router available, there wasn't a fixed-wing available... Everything was tapped."

Now, Wainwright says it might be time to accept that the 2020 fire season may be the new normal. Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz agrees. 

""There was this false sense of hope that these wildfire seasons were anomalies, that what we saw in 2014 and 2015 wasn't going to happen in 2018 or 2019 or 2020," Franz said. "Five of the last six years have been catastrophic wildfire seasons for the state." 

Franz introduced House Bill 1168 this year. The bill would add more funds and equipment to the state's wildfire response, and other resources to help fund fire reduction efforts and long term forest health. 

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Right now, $40 to $45 million are allocated to a general fund each year for wildfires in Washington. However, the state has ended up spending $153 million dollars a year on average for the past six years.  

The Twisp fire alone cost the state $60 million in 2019, which was just one fire among 1,850 fires that ignited in the state that year. 

RELATED: Washington firefighter burned in Twisp River Fire shares story 4 years later

Franz's bill would set aside an extra $125 million every two years dedicated to proactively getting ahead of wildfires. The bill would also set aside funds for two new fixed-wing planes and fortify all Washington aircrafts with technology to be able to fight fires at night, which is something they don't have the ability to do right now. 

But do firefighters think the bill will actually help?

"We've seen equipment already, but this bill is going to assist local fire departments with equipment that they frankly, in their own budgets, couldn't come up with at the local level," Wainwright said. 

The availability of more equipment is key before wildfire season starts gives firefighters like Wainwright extra peace of mind. 

"You couldn't put enough people on the ground safely to get that stopped, but something from the Department of Natural Resources to come through and be able to take care of that for us in the exact right time, you can't put a price tag on that," Wainwright said. 

Washington's House Appropriations Committee is still working out how the bill would be funded if its signed into law. 

A similar bill failed to pass in the legislature last year, but this year Franz says she's dedicated to finding a funding source to get the bill passed, regardless of where the money comes from.