Ranchers and farmers would help state fight wildfires under proposal in Legislature

The bill would test out associations where non-firefighters get training and other resources to make initial attacks on the blazes

 

January 18, 2024

Volunteer firefighters manage a live burn with drip torches during a wildfire training course on May 8, 2021 in Brewster. Photo by David Ryder for Getty Images.

Washington lawmakers want the state to partner with farmers, ranchers and others to better fight wildland fires.

House Bill 1971 would set up a rangeland fire protection association pilot project through the Department of Natural Resources to give ranchers and farmers some training and other resources to make initial attacks on fires on private, non-forested land.

The proposal requires the department to set up three separate pilot projects east of the Cascade Mountains by the beginning of the 2025 fire season. By November 2028, the department will release a report on the effectiveness of these groups to the Legislature.

Local people are the ones who best know the landscape, the weather and where structures, fences and gates are, bill sponsor Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said.

"If we can bring in our local folks to support them to push back on this wildfire, I think that's a great idea," Dent told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Friday.

Dent, who has worked on the proposal for years, said it's an idea he learned about from Idaho and Oregon, which both have similar rural fire protection associations.

Under the proposal, a rangeland fire protection association is defined as a nonprofit or unincorporated organization that has formed an agreement with a state agency or fire protection service agency for the detection, prevention or suppression of wildfires.

The associations would be required to have liability insurance, and members of the group must be at least 18 years old, use certain protective equipment, and have received a basic level of wildland fire training.

The bill also allows anyone who is not a member of a rangeland fire protection association to suppress a fire that occurs on and poses a threat to their property.

Dent said there are a number of property owners who already fight fires on or near their property, and they should have the proper training, equipment and state partnerships to do so safely.

"We all want the same things. In this instance, it's less wildfire," Dent said. "If we can work together and get out there on an initial attack, I think that is a win for all of us."

During a public hearing on Friday, some firefighting representatives clashed with lawmakers over the level of training and the resources set aside in the bill.

Seamus Petrie, representing the Washington Public Employees Association, including some DNR firefighters, asked that the training requirements in the bill be stricter and better defined. Petrie said firefighters are able to feel confident while battling blazes because they know that everybody next to them has gone through the same protocol.

"These are going to be real fires and real people's lives on the line from the beginning of this pilot," he said. "It's really important to codify what that training is."

According to the bill, the recommended training for association members would be at least that of a wildland firefighter 2, as defined by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Bud Sizemore, with the Washington State Council of Firefighters, expressed concerns about putting effort into a new program, instead of focusing on agencies that currently fight wildfires.

"This will just be a drain on already really limited resources," Sizemore said.

Lawmakers who support the bill counter that the purpose of the associations would be to have more people working to stop the fire's spread in the initial attack before state or local firefighting agencies can get there.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said there have been recent large fires that have spread rapidly and destroyed towns that maybe could have slowed if more people worked the initial attack.

"Maybe we're trading off a little additional safety for the firefighters for a lot of safety for the public," he said.

Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, said recent investments into fighting wildfires helped keep most fires small this past fire season and the rangeland associations could be another tool to do that.

"We did not dodge a bullet this year," Springer said. "We prepared for the bullet that was coming."

 

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