Legislature continues its focus on Washington wildfires

forest banner

April 22, 2021

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

In recent years, the communities in North Central Washington have sadly experienced the significant impact of catastrophic wildfire. Our district has endured many devastating wildfires, including back-to-back years of the state’s largest fires in 2014 and 2015. Last year alone, the state Department of Natural Resources responded to nearly 1,640 fires. Some 813,000 acres burned across Washington. Tragically, wildfire affected the North Central Washington region last year with the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties in September 2020. Those fires burned over 400,000 total acres and destroyed over 100 homes. Our risk of wildfire continues to increase, which is why proactive measures for forest management and fire response are necessary. These two areas will continue to be important priorities for me as I advocate for our district and adequate wildfire funding.

WA wildfire areas map

This map, provided by DNR, shows the regions of Washington at risk of wildfires.

The state of Washington has been working toward a stronger, more comprehensive approach to address wildfires and reducing our risk over the long term. That’s why I’m encouraged by the Wildland Fire Protection 10-Year Strategic Plan by Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz. I’ve worked closely with Commissioner Franz and DNR staff over recent years and am very proud of the bill we passed together in 2017, Senate Bill 5546, to direct the state DNR to set up a framework for assessing and treating fire-prone lands. The law sets a specific goal of assessing and treating 1 million acres over 16 years, most likely through prescribed fire and strategic thinning. This process is now underway, but it will likely take several years of aggressive thinning and responsible prescribed fire in order to minimize our risk of catastrophic fires. Chelan County, like DNR, has also taken proactive efforts to develop a Chelan County Climate Resiliency Strategy to examine wildfires, snowpack and instream flow, floods, and water supply.

Pearl Hill wildfire map

In September 2020, the Cold Springs and Pearl Hill fires in Okanogan and Douglas counties burned over 400,000 total acres and destroyed over 100 homes.

As we’ve learned from our local Era of Megafires discussions, we must take a proactive approach with wildfires in all neighborhoods and at every level of government. This includes responsible thinning and prescribed burning on state and federal forestlands, along with taking aggressive steps to create defensible space around your homes and neighborhoods through the Firewise Program. We must also ensure the state’s firefighting capability is as effective and efficient as possible.

For the 2021-23 biennium, the state budget has significantly increased its support for forest health and wildfire response. Positioning additional resources in strategic locations across the state will shorten the response time when new blazes are spotted and help us put out fires soon after they start rather than just “managing” the fires once they begin burning.

The state has paid hundreds of millions in recent years reimbursing the costs of wildfires. And that does not even factor in the negative long-term economic impact that wildfires have had on communities in our district, including the impact on our all-important tourism or recreational opportunities. There are also emotional costs and losses that cannot be quantified, as courageous firefighters from our area have sadly lost their lives or been severely injured battling these blazes. Finally, there is a quality-of-life impact caused by wildfires, as smoke can blanket a region, making it dangerous for people to be outdoors and difficult for many to breathe.

WA wildfire costs and budget chart

DNR’s fire costs, firefighting budget and forest health budget.  

While the state has reimbursed firefighting costs through its budget stabilization reserve account, I believe it is a much more prudent use of your tax dollars to invest more money on the front end so we are positioned to respond more quickly and more effectively instead of paying so much money on the back end and suffering many severe losses as a result.

My work and involvement on the issue of wildfires continue to be inspired by many dedicated people locally, including those involved in the Wenatchee-based Wildfire Project and local citizens, officials, and first responders. I am thankful for the leadership of Commissioner Franz and the level of dedication that she and DNR staff have demonstrated on this issue over the past four years. I am also grateful for the support the Legislature has provided through new policies and additional funding, including passage in 2017 of my legislation directing DNR to set up a framework for assessing and treating fire-prone lands.

DNR wildfire graphic

Wildfires spread rapidly in Okanogan and Douglas counties in September 2020.

My Senate Bill 5158 approved by the Legislature

Two years ago, the Legislature created the Electric Utilities Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force that focused on ways to prevent wildfires. This critical work included an effort to begin drafting model agreements to remove dangerous trees, developing communications protocols, and considering investigation recommendations. After the task force released its recommendations to the Legislature, I began partnering with Chelan PUD and DNR to codify the group and help implement its recommendations. My proposal, Senate Bill 5158, would direct Commissioner Franz to work with the Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Advisory Committee to implement recommendations recently offered by the Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force, which issued its final report in December. According to the bill, this would be accomplished by August 1 and the group’s work would be maintained and periodically updated on DNR’s website.

These recommendations are very important to many of our local utilities, especially considering the 12th District’s recent history of catastrophic wildfires. It is important to keep the momentum going for this group to finalize its work products, to ensure posting of critical information to the DNR website, and to ensure ongoing communications with the Legislature. This year’s effort on Senate Bill 5158 brought me together once again with Commissioner Franz and her staff, who have been awesome to work with in past years. We accomplished some great things together in my first Senate term. I am thankful to have kept that going this year with this new bill as I begin my second term. My bill unanimously passed both the Senate and House and is awaiting the governor’s signature. Throughout the session, many electric utilities spoke in favor of the bill, including General Manager Steve Wright from Chelan County PUD. To watch one of the committee hearings on TVW, click here for the committee hearing.

2015 firefighters

Local firefighters supporting each other during the 2015 Chelan Complex fires.

What supporters are saying about Senate Bill 5158

“Senator Hawkins’ proposed legislation addresses the increasingly important issue of the nexus between electric utility operations and wildfire risk management. The legislation expands a fruitful process between utilities and DNR Commissioner Franz. It performs the dual duty of helping protect homeowners from fire risk and the risk of large electric bills.”

  • Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright

“A big ‘thank you’ to Senator Hawkins and his leadership on this bill and to all the stakeholders who took time to be part of the task force during a year of uncertainty. We had long-overdue and difficult conversations that brought us to consensus on many issues that will support all our wildfire prevention work as well as post-wildfire processes. The recommendations in this bill will solidify our work and ensure we keep the momentum of the task force going.”

  • Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz

“The Washington PUD Association supports Senate Bill 5158. This legislation will continue the important collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources and electric utilities, including public utility districts, to protect our electricity systems and our state forests from the threat of wildfires.”

  • Washington PUD Association Executive Director George Caan

State takes big step forward to support DNR 

I was very proud to join my legislative colleagues in the House and Senate by supporting House Bill 1168 this session, sponsored by Rep. Larry Springer of the 45th Legislative District. This bill takes a major step forward this session on forest health and wildfire response investments, establishing a legislative intent to invest $500 million over the next eight years for wildfire response, forest restoration, and community wildfire resilience. The effort to pass this expanded policy has been a multi-year effort by Commissioner Hilary Franz and her DNR staff. After the House passed HB 1168, the Senate amended it and the House has yet to agree with the Senate's changes, so the bill has not been approved yet in its final form. I was very proud to support this bill. To learn more about this legislation, please click here.

History of my recent wildfire bills

I am very proud of my strong partnership and working relationship with DNR. During my first term as 12th District senator, three of my bills related to forest health or wildfire prevention were passed by the Legislature and signed into law. Commissioner Franz and her DNR staff worked diligently alongside me for each effort. Below is a summary of those three approved bills:

  • Senate Bill 5546 (2017) directs DNR to set up a framework for assessing the health of fire-prone lands and treating them. It sets a specific goal of assessing and treating 1 million acres over 16 years, most likely through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. The bill also includes a stakeholder process and biennial progress reviews to the Legislature.
  • Senate Bill 5270 (2017) was passed unanimously by both legislative chambers and signed into law by the governor to remove the “temporary” label from the contract-timber harvest program operated by DNR. The program allows the agency to hire someone to harvest timber and sort the logs, after which DNR can sell them. It began in 2003 and was expanded by lawmakers in 2009.
  • SB 6211 (2018) provided DNR authority to handle revenue and authorize spending under the Good Neighbor Authority agreement signed by DNR and the U.S. Forest Service in 2017. The Good Neighbor Authority is a partnership between the state and federal government to streamline management of national forestlands.
Chelan Complex fire

The 12th District has suffered many recent wildfires, including the Carlton Complex, Okanogan Complex, and Chelan Complex fires (shown above) and others.

Looking ahead on wildfire issues

The state wildfire season is unfortunately growing longer. It is not even a wildfire “season” anymore because fires are occurring as early as April and some aren’t totally extinguished until a heavy rain or snowfall late in the year. Wildfires are no longer just impacting areas in central or eastern Washington. We’re seeing wildfires west of the Cascades, also. This is having a significant and growing impact on our state budget.

This session was a good year to take another strong, positive step forward on wildfires. The Legislature has addressed K-12 education funding, having resolved the McCleary decision a couple years ago. We have many challenges ahead as we pull through the COVID pandemic. As we continue to move ahead identifying state priorities, the issue of wildfires and wildfire suppression should be high on our list.    

Please continue to take precautions this year related to wildfires. While many of the wildfires are caused by natural forces, such as lightning during dry and windy conditions, many wildfires can be avoided if we are careful. Please help protect yourself and your communities from devastating wildfires.

Listen to my recent local radio interviews

Each week during the legislative session, I call our local radio stations to participate in live interviews about the latest happenings in the legislative session. If you'd like to hear my most recent interviews, click on these links for KPQ, KOHO, and KOZI

Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your state senator.



Brad Hawkins

State Senator Brad Hawkins
12th Legislative District
E-mail: brad.hawkins@leg.wa.gov 

Website: senatorbradhawkins.org

107 Newhouse Building - P.O. Box 40412 | Olympia, WA 98504-0412
(360) 786-7622 or Toll-free: (800) 562-6000