Guest Opinion: Where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going with Washington’s wildfires

On April 20th, a brush fire ignited outside the small town of Lyman in Skagit County, quickly spreading along the wildland-urban interface.

Smoke was spotted quickly, and — despite changing winds and difficult terrain — responders from multiple agencies were able to get the fire completely contained in less than two days, losing only 50 acres of land.

Unless you live in Lyman — and maybe even if you do — you probably didn’t hear much about it. That’s no accident: That’s the result of a lot of hard work and transformation.

For the past seven-plus years, I’ve had the honor of serving as Commissioner of Public Lands, responsible for leading the Department of Natural Resources and our state’s wildfire response.

As I enter my last wildfire season as Commissioner, I think it’s important we acknowledge how far we’ve come and recommit ourselves to protecting our lands, forests, and communities from this pernicious, unpredictable threat.

When I took office in 2016, Washington state was still reeling from the aftermath of the worst wildfire season in our history. In 2015, more than a million acres burned in just a few months, more than 2,000 ignitions sparked across the state, and three firefighters tragically lost their lives fighting the Twisp River Fire.

Since then, I’m proud to say that we’ve revolutionized how we fight fires in the state of Washington, transforming DNR from being nicknamed “Do Not Respond” to being known as a national leader in less than a decade, by focusing on three equally important pillars: suppression, prevention, and preparedness.

We started with suppression — pre-positioning our assets (at the time, just 40 fulltime firefighters and only eight, Vietnam-era Huey helicopters, with the bullet holes to prove it … ) closer to wildfire-prone areas so we could get on fires as soon as smoke was spotted in the air. Timing is everything in a fire, and by starting in better position, we were able to respond quicker and more effectively.

We then took steps to improve and expand our resources.

A few years ago — over Labor Day weekend in 2020 — our state was hit by horrific firestorms, torching more than 500,000 acres across central Washington in 36 hours.

I’ll never forget pleading for help from federal responders and being told they had no resources to spare. Fires in California and Oregon were closer to large cities. Washington “didn’t have enough values at risk” is the way they put it.

So, I decided to go straight to the source — signing exclusive-use contracts with private vendors to make sure we always had aircraft and resources when we needed them. From now on, WE would decide when our values were at risk.

We then invested in prevention by addressing Washington’s forest health crisis.

In 2017, DNR launched a 20-year Forest Health Strategic Plan to treat 1.25 million acres of unhealthy forest in eastern Washington. Decades of disease, drought, and infestation had turned millions of acres of verdant Washington forest into dry, dying, wildfire fuel.

Through forest thinning, prescribed burns, and removing sick trees, we’ve been able to improve forest health and make our forests more fire resilient at the same time. We’ve treated more than 600,000 acres — father than halfway to our goal in less than half the time — with plans to expand our health treatments into western Washington.

Finally, we crafted legislation for a historic, half-billion-dollar investment in our state’s wildfire response.

The legislation I proposed, HB 1168 — passed in 2021 with unanimous support by the state legislature — enabled us to create over 100 full-time firefighter positions, purchase new aircraft to increase our aerial capacity, and surge funding, resources and equipment to local fire departments.

In addition, we were able to expand our forest health treatments and improve preparedness by creating Wildfire Ready Neighbors — a community resilience program enabling homeowners, renters, and landowners across Washington to protect their properties against the worst outcomes of wildfire.

The result has been nothing short of transformative.

Over the past two years, we’ve held over 95% of wildfires to below ten acres. Last year, 160,000 acres burned statewide – despite more than 1,400 ignitions — one of the lowest totals in a decade. At a time when drier, hotter conditions are increasing the number of wildfires nationwide, Washington has flipped the script.

But as climate change continues to exert itself across our landscape, hotter temperatures and more unpredictable conditions will start to extend our wildfire seasons into wildfire years, and not only in central and eastern Washington.

Last year, more fires sparked on the west side of our state than on the east — something we’re likely to see more often in the coming decades. Already this year, DNR has responded to nearly 100 fires — a 40% increase over last spring.

As another wildfire season begins, we must remain vigilant across our state. And as I prepare to leave this job, I’m determined to leave our state and its forests better — and better protected — than when I found them.

At DNR, we will continue to fight wildfires and protect communities with every tool at our disposal. But the truth is – we ALL share this responsibility. As Washingtonians, we all have a duty to keep our state evergreen.

So, as the temperatures begin to rise and spring gives way to summer, remember to practice fire safety, remember to safeguard your homes and property, remember to report smoke the second you see it, and — above all — remember that we’re all in this together.

Hilary Franz is Washington State Department of Natural Resources commissioner.