Hilary Franz, Washington DNR, discusses initial attack and aerial firefighting

Commissioner of Department of Natural Resources

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources spoke at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in San Diego., March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(This article was first published at Fire Aviation)

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of the Washington State Department of Natural Resources began her presentation Tuesday at the Aerial Firefighting Conference by describing a Christmas card sent by one of her predecessors in 1963. Commissioner Bert Cole wrote lamenting the devastation that the wildfires had caused that year in the state, burning 663 acres.

“The threats we face today,” she said, “is claiming 1,000 times that amount. Our firefighters face lengthening wildfire seasons starting earlier and ending later.”

When she was elected in 2016 to serve as Commissioner, the DNR had 40 full time firefighters and, “We had zero dollars appropriated every single year by the legislature to wildfire,” she said. “In fact, a legislature report just a decade ago concluded that the nine Vietnam-era Huey helicopters were too much and we might want to let a few of them go.”

But as fires have increased in recent years the policy of the DNR is now to launch helicopters “the moment smoke is in the air,” with the goal of keeping 90 percent of the fires to less than 10 acres.

In 2018 large fires in every corner of the state burned 440,000 acres. The DNR attempted to borrow aviation resources from other areas but none were available. Then 2020 was also very busy. By Labor day they had added another Huey to the fleet to bring the total up to ten and had a handful of single engine air tankers when the firestorm hit on the holiday. A small boy was killed as his family tried to outrun [the Cold Springs Fire].

Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources
Hilary Franz, Commissioner of Washington State Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the Aerial Firefighting Conference in San Diego., March 22, 2022. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

“It was my first civilian loss in this job,” she said, “and I swore I’d do anything and everything to prevent that ever happening again. As the fires were blazing and increasing in size, once again, we were calling for more air resources to help us contain these fires. And once again, because fires were burning up and down the entire west coast with even worse destruction, we heard that there were none available and we didn’t have enough values at risk. In 2021 I said I would never ever do 2020 again. I would never rely on another state or federal agencies [for the resources we need]. We will definitely continue to partner, but we also need to take responsibility for ourselves. My one responsibility is to protect the people of Washington and the firefighters who put their lives on the line.”

In 2021 the fires were even worse in Washington, Oregon, and California. The nation was at Preparedness Level 5, the maximum, for months. The number of aviation resources in Washington grew from about 10 to 35. The way they were staged across Washington made it possible to have an aircraft at a fire within 10 to 30 minutes. More than 98 percent of the fires were suppressed during initial attack, and 94 percent burned less than 10 acres.

“Because we have so few resources to do the job we need to do, to me it’s actually basic,” the Commissioner said. “Don’t play with fire. If a fire starts put it out immediately. It costs less and does far less damage the smaller it is and the sooner you can catch it. So while I’m personally afraid to fly, I’m not afraid of others flying.”

After listing and thanking the aerial firefighting companies that helped provide aviation resources in 2021, she said, “Your aircraft truly helped us prevent what could have been one of the worst fire season in my lifetime.”

In April, 2021, Washington’s House Bill 1168 was signed by the governor. It commits $125 million every two years over the next four biennial budgets ($500 million in total) to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration, and build community resilience. The bill makes it possible to hire 100 more firefighters, increase the number of firefighting aircraft, detect new fires more quickly, and begin fighting fires at night with helicopters.

After she spoke at the conference, we spent a few minutes with Commissioner Hilary Franz to get a few more details which you will see in the video below.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

15 thoughts on “Hilary Franz, Washington DNR, discusses initial attack and aerial firefighting”

  1. Hooray for Ms Franz and her common sense approach. The way to prevent megafires is to put them out when they are small. Rapid overwhelming Initial Attack from the air and ground, day and night is the key to success.

  2. Commissioner Franz well done. Initial attack and containment before the second burning period as you stated is the key to limiting destruction of life and property. Here are a few suggestions that I would submit for your thoughts.
    1) Don’t count on the Federal Government to bail you out with their resources. (that is a fact)
    2) Create a cost sharing pack with Cal Fire, O.D.F. and your agency to obtain an immediate need aircraft that will fill the gap when initial attack aircraft are close to their low fuel cycle. Or in other words everyone has gone full out in hopes of containment but it is time for fuel. Seen this hundreds of times in my career during initial attack. Almost “got it”, what happened to the air resources? Fire gets away.
    3) Immediate need air tanker that carries over 18,000 U.S. gallons. Understand the 747 will return this summer under new ownership. As an operator a guaranteed daily stand-by and fixed flight cost would seem very attractive to the new owners. Call-When-Needed, waste of time for initial attack.

  3. Hilary failed to mention a few key details.
    1. The deterioration of relationships with federal partners in regard to aviation resources.
    2. WA DNR no longer has the ability to deliver aerial firefighters to emerging incidents because the helicopter crewmembers positions were not filled, blaming COVID and the need to protect pilots.
    3. Tanks have been added to helicopters reducing allowable payload and ground clearance.
    4. Struggles to maintain management and SMS of contracted aviation resources and agency “owned” FEPP aircraft.
    5. Major recruitment and retention issues in wildland fire positions, specifically in aviation, specifically since 2016

    Some may agree that spending more money on contracted aircraft and retrofitting 60 year old UH-1H aircraft to be able to perform missions at night does little to help the public with wildland fire management. Some feel political aviation firefighting has taken the place of safe and efficient aviation operations, without qualified and proficient pilots, aerial delivered firefighters on the ground, and experienced managers in the front seat of IA helicopters aiding CRM. There has been a huge uptick in contracted aircraft in WA, adding tanks to aircraft that has historically delivered firefighters, limiting vertical reference water delivery from helicopters in mountainous terrain, and initial attack helicopter managers forced to sit in the back seat of a Huey with no com box controls because of COVID. Some feel the program in WA has become exponentially more expensive, and significantly less capable in recent years. Hilary also mandated that all employees be vaccinated for employment, which hit the wildland fire program pretty hard.

    1. Anonymous in the Know… Thanks for the important comments. This is stuff that gets missed in all the political zeitgeist of narrating the urgency du jour and flashy solutions.

      “Hilary also mandated that all employees be vaccinated for employment, which hit the wildland fire program pretty hard.”

      In all the frantic media blitzing and political activism to rescue us all from climate change and the terror of wildfire, the cultural climate of people who are pretty close to the ground, was actually just ran over. I’ve been in the DNR fire since the late 80’s, where as a Washington “wet sider” I took a job in eastside DNR. Way into the eastside. I know the brain trust of fire capability that those east side people brought to bear on fire incidents. It was utterly amazing. There can be little doubt with anyone in the know – those eastside folks were our firefighting brain trust. As a part of that, as west side people got involved in fire they were mentored and integrated into that brain trust by those people in that eastside fire culture. It was brilliant. I knew, as the mandate, and subsequent HR “zoom listening sessions” progressed, that if there was any awareness of how this was going to change the cultural climate, there really didn’t seem to be much appreciation for calculating the future of the fire brain trust. They became those who shall remain nameless. Gone. So I guess they were just a cost of it all, and now we can throw a bunch of money, with a bunch of new positions and equipment at the other problem of the day. I am very sad – but of course there are many listening sessions and referrals to employee services to help me cope and get over it, and most importantly – that they make sure I know that they care.

      1. GOV Inslees vaccine mandate is a looming DISASTER in 2022 upcoming fire season! WA DNR has lost MANY valuable people over his foolishness. If The US Forest Service removed the vaccine mandate then SO SHOULD INSLEE! W The people here in NE WA are rightfully worried about the situation ahead.

    2. Well put. In addition, a key principle of the wildland fire community is the concept of shared resources. No state or federal agency has ever tried to fund and staff for the worst case scenario. That would be cost prohibitive. So for many decades, various agencies have staffed for the typical average season with agreements in place to share resources with their neighbors who become overwhelmed in the rare worst case scenario. Washington DNR has for years forbidden their people from leaving the state, only rarely allowing them to go elsewhere. That policy has loosened a little bit in recent years, but their “me first” approach has worsened under Commissionar Franz. Many agreements with other agencies have been thrown under the bus as a very persuasive Commissioner continues to wring more tax dollars from the legislature to fund her me-first agenda. The policy swings, heavy taxation, reckless treatment of DNR employees, and disregard of old partners is a certain continuation of the boom-and-bust history of the Washington DNR.

  4. Quick and forceful IA is nice and only exasperates the underlying problem. What is Washington doing to reduce the impacts of significant wildfires? How does Washington’s aviation program assist with the fuels management program? I think of state aviation programs like a Swiss Army knife, they should be able to support a variety of task. Putting wet stuff on the hot stuff is not the only tactical thing those helicopters can do.

  5. Ms. Franz has also overseen the abandonment of the DNR fire lookout program. Management decided that a camera would suffice and the last staffed lookout was shut down at the end 2020.
    This was despite that lookout overseeing almost all the Loomis State Forest, important school trust lands. There had been someone on the hill where Aeneas lookout stands for over 100 years and the DNR had had very experienced people staffing it.

    1. Rosie hits the nail on the head, Hilary. In your address to the Aeiral Firefighters Conference in San Diego, you stated that the $62Million/year funds appropriated under HB1168 included funds to detect fires more quickly. There is no better single detection system than staffed fire lookouts. In Okanogan County, where the largest widlfire ever in Washington burned in 2014, followed by twice a much burned the very next year in 2015, all five lookouts remain vacant today that could be staffed at very little expense. Aeneas LO, the last of 200 DNR lookouts was shuttered for the first time in 100 years in 2021. Wouldn’t you think that after such devastating fires, rural residents in Okanogan and Ferry County would insist on Aeneas, Buck, Knowlton, Tunk, and Franson lookouts be staffed? They are in the dark. They don’t know they exist! They are led to believe cameras are doing the job. That is not true!

      1. I too agree with the importance of Lookouts. I retired from a 31 year USFS career as a fire fighter in 1999. My wife retired the same year. She had been a FS Lookout and was offered a job staffing another FS lookout. She lived at the lookout and I stayed up there a few times. She would get up at sunrise to scan for smokes as the sun came up. Little puffer smokes that disappear shortly after being spotted will smoke up for a few minutes after the sun first hits them in the morning and then disappear again. Due to the night time inversion there is often a “Reservoir” of smoke on the ground around the smoldering fire that rises when the inversion breaks. Lookouts that get up later or drive up to the lookout each day never see those smokes.
        Ray, My wife has an autographed copy of your Book from 1984.

      2. You are 100% correct Mr Kresek. The public does not know the lookouts are unstaffed, and the land owners who pay an assessment for protection don’t know. And that is the way the DNR wants it. There was no public involvement in the decision making.
        I attempted to get clarification as to why Aeneas was shut down several times through direct emails to the DNR and Hilary’s office and to the Governor’s office, no response. Unacceptable.

    2. Aeneas LO in coordination with nearby Bonaparte LO mutually covered a LOT of territory in mutual contact support! Very sad that WA DNR chooses to unstaff Aeneas LO!

  6. WADNR Helitack are some of the best I’ve ever worked with. DNR doesn’t need to spend too much money on extra Blackhawks or Kmaxs, pay their ff more money and staff the ac with full crews. Augment with horsepower like Cranes or Chinooks (or Scoopers!)

    1. Jeff, I agree. I have worked on fires many times that Washington DNR helitack was also on. They are top notch.

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