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.

Washington state DNR requests funds for 100 additional firefighters

Wildfires in Washington, 2020
Map showing locations of wildfires in Washington that were reported to the National Interagency Fire Center in 2020.

Legislation being introduced in the state of Washington requests additional funding to beef up their fire suppression capability on the ground and in the air.

The number of acres burned in wildfires last year in the state, 812,000, was more than four times the average in the 2000s. In eastern Washington, 80 percent of the buildings were destroyed by the Babb-Malden Fire in September, 2020. The number of acres blackened in  Oregon last year, just across the border, was the second highest ever recorded.

Babb-Malden Fire
Babb-Malden Fire in eastern Washington, September, 2020. Whitman County Sheriff photo.

The bill introduced earlier this week in Washington, HB 1168, would appropriate $125 million for the Department of Natural Resources to create for the first time a dedicated fund to suppress and mitigate wildfires over the next two-year budget period.

A similar bill was introduced last year but failed to pass, possibly because it also stipulated that a portion of the funds would be raised by establishing a surtax on home insurance premiums. This latest version leaves it up to the legislators to come up with a source for the money.

For two of the last three years, Washington had the worst air quality in the world due to smoke from wildfires.

The requested funds can be sorted into four categories:

Wildfire Response — $75.2 million

The bill would create positions for 100 more firefighters, adding three 20-person hand crews, 20 dozer operators, and two 10-person “post-release” crews comprised of formerly incarcerated persons who served on state fire response crews.

The bill would also allow the purchase of two intelligence gathering fixed wing aircraft to be used on fires. Their ten very old UH-1H Huey helicopters would receive upgrades of some systems and night-flying capabilities. Washington does not own any air tankers, but in 2020 they had approximately six privately owned single engine air tankers (SEATS) on contract.

Forest Restoration — $31.4 million

This would fully fund and accelerate the DNR’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan, which calls for restoring natural wildfire resistance to 1.25 million acres of forest.

Workforce Development — $5.9 million

Provide career pathways for foresters, firefighters and mill workers

Community Resilience — $12.6 million

Make investments at the home, neighborhood, and community levels to reduce wildfire risk and protect communities. Including investments in defensive strategies at the community level such as fuel breaks, prescribed fire, and creating defensible green space, plus  direct assistance to home owners to secure their property and neighborhood with programs like FireWise.

In the video below Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) joined experts and advocacy leaders from across the state to unveil the just-introduced bill. The discussion about fire begins at 6:00.

map fires Washington
Map showing heat detected by satellites on wildfires in Washington at 4:18 p.m. PDT September 8, 2020.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Washington”, click here.

The media is picking up on the fact that fighting wildfires is going to be even more hazardous during the pandemic

A wildland firefighter in Washington state has tested positive for COVID-19

36th Av fire masks wildfire covid-19
Personnel at the 36th Ave. SE Fire about 10 miles east of Naples, Florida posted May 15, 2020 by the Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.

In the last few days I have seen several articles in the media about how the COVID-19 pandemic increases the risk for wildland firefighters.

From the Associated Press, “Official: Busy wildfire season will be impacted by pandemic.”

…The coronavirus pandemic already reduced the amount of training for fire crews, and Franz said Washington can expect less assistance this year from federal agencies and other partners in battling wildfires.

The DNR has already recorded its first case of a firefighter testing positive for the virus, said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. It was a seasonal firefighter in northeastern Washington.

To prevent additional cases, the state will embrace federal guidelines on social distancing and other reforms, said Jack Cates, chief of Spokane County Fire District 9 during a conference call with reporters.

“Fire camps will look a lot different this summer,″ Cates said. “They won’t be mini-cities like you usually see.″

Instead, firefighters will camp in smaller groups to limit contact with others, Cates said. They also will not be eating buffet-style in big kitchens.

Fire bosses also plan to rely more heavily on aerial assets to reduce the number of firefighters needed on the ground, said George Geissler, the Washington state forester.

Still, Geissler predicted that the number of firefighters will be in short supply because of the pandemic.

“It could be a significant impact to us,″ he said.

A piece in the New York Times describes a model the US Forest Service is using. On a fire with “hundreds of people”, their model predicts nearly two dozen will be infected with COVID-19, and there could be a 2 percent fatality rate among those infected. That 2 percent is a revision from the previous figure they were using, which was 6 percent.

The “hundreds of people” number is a little difficult to analyze, but if they meant 300, the prediction is that the fatality rate would be about 0.48 percent among all personnel on the incident. So if there are 1,000 people on the fire, approximately five would die, according to the model. Unacceptable!

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  (Statistician George Box, from a paper published in 1976)

From the Times article, “US Report Indicates Broad Risk of COVID-19 at Wildfire Camps”:

…The U.S. Forest Service’s draft risk assessment suggests that even in a best-case scenario — with social distancing followed and plenty of tests and protective equipment available — nearly two dozen firefighters could be infected with COVID-19 at a camp with hundreds of people who come in to combat a fire that burns for months.

The worst-case scenario? More than 1,000 infections.
The Forest Service said the document was outdated and being redone, and the newest version wasn’t yet ready to share. The AP obtained the draft from an official who has access to it and didn’t want to be named.

One of the authors of the risk assessment said Tuesday that in the new version, the infection rates remain the same. But while the draft originally said the death rate among infected firefighters could reach as high as 6%, that is being revised sharply downward, to less than 2%, to reflect newer data, said Jude Bayham, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University.

From The Conversation,  “Wildfire smoke worsens coronavirus risk, putting firefighters in extra danger”:

…Italian scientists reported in 2014 that air pollutants can increase the viral load in the lungs and reduce the ability of specialized cells called macrophages to clear out viral invaders.

Researchers in Montana later connected that effect to wood smoke. They found that animals exposed to wood smoke 24 hours before being exposed to a pathogen ended up with more pathogen in their lungs. The researchers showed that wood smoke exposure decreased the macrophages’ ability to combat respiratory infection.

Now, new evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 air pollution, which is produced by sources such as wildfirespower plants and vehicles, may make coronavirus particularly deadly.

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a nationwide study of county-level data and found that even a small increase in the amount of PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19. While small increases in PM2.5 also raise the risk of death from other causes for older adults, the magnitude of the increase for COVID-19 was about 20 times greater. The results were released last week, before the usual peer review process was conducted, to help warn people of the risks.

Taken together, these findings suggest that air pollution, including wood smoke, could increase the risk that wildland firefighters will develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.

That probably doesn’t surprise seasoned firefighters.

From the New Mexico Political Report, “COVID-19 complicates 2020 fire season”:

The article begins by recounting the incident within an incident on the 2017 Frye Fire near Safford, Arizona. A doctor swabbed the throats of 80 firefighters, with 63 (or 78 percent) testing positive for Streptococcus (strep throat). Thankfully strep can usually be cured within days or weeks.

Then the article moves on to this year and COVID-19:

…In New Mexico, the state’s Forestry Division is adapting much like its national counterpart. The Forestry Division, which manages 43 million acres, worked with local and tribal partners to create new guidelines for their staff, said Vernon Muller, resource protection bureau chief with the New Mexico Department of Natural Resources.

Those include self-screenings at the start, middle, and end of every shift, even while on active fire assignments, for any signs of sickness. Only two individuals will ride in an engine while a string of chase vehicles transports the rest of the crew.

Crew buggies will carry a fraction of their capacity. Temperature tests will be taken. Meals will be packaged individually instead of served buffet-style. Already, Muller said, two individuals declined an assignment after their self-assessment questionnaire found they or their family members may have been exposed to coronavirus.

But these choices create tradeoffs. Some say it’s still not possible to keep six feet apart, and crowding the roads with almost twice as many vehicles creates a hazard of its own and doubles the workload when it’s time to sanitize trucks and equipment.

And because firefighters are paid only when on-assignment, passing on an assignment because they suspect exposure to COVID-19 cuts into their paycheck.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Karen. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands dances with Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear Hilary Franz
Smokey Bear and Hilary Franz, Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands, in a screengrab from the video below.

Smokey Bear and Hilary Franz, Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands, filmed a fire prevention public service announcement with Smokey Bear.

Washington DNR requests a record $55 million budget

The agency wants to convert 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz unveiled on October 10 the largest budget request of its kind in state history: a $55 million Department of Natural Resources proposal for fighting wildfires and maintaining healthier forests in Washington.

The 2019-21 budget package, which already has bipartisan support from members of the Legislature’s Wildfire Caucus, would transform DNR’s firefighting strategy and reduce that hazards that unhealthy forests pose to Washington communities.

This year, DNR responded to about 1,700 wildfires – second only to the number of wildfire responses in 2009. Smoke from this year’s fires at times gave Washington the worst air quality in the world, and numerous fires forced families to evacuate their homes.

Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz
Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz speaks about her budget request October 10, 2018 at the Department of Natural Resources helicopter maintenance hangar in Olympia, Washington.

“We need bold, forward-thinking investments to reduce wildfires. Inaction is not an option,” Franz said. “It’s time to come together to invest in strategies that keep wildfires small and our skies clear of smoke, and I look forward to working with the governor and the Legislature to ensure we have the resources we need to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

Wildfire fighting and prevention

The biennium budget request includes nearly $12 million to transform 30 seasonal engine Captain jobs into year-round permanent positions. This would help retain seasoned firefighters at DNR and provide a staff to carry out critical forest health treatments, such as prescribed burning, during the offseason. The vast majority of DNR’s firefighting force is seasonal (only 43 firefighters work full time), prompting many firefighters to take their skills elsewhere.

“I love serving my community as a wildland firefighter,” said Tommy Matsuda, a seasonal firefighter at DNR. “But the part-time nature of the job makes it hard to sign up year after year. I would gladly stay on full time performing forest health work in the offseason if I was able.”

The agency’s firefighters would also receive more training to deal with increasingly complex wildfire seasons under the commissioner’s budget plan, to the tune of $2.2 million in the 2019-21 biennium. They would receive two additional helicopters – increasing their helicopter fleet to nine and helping them respond more rapidly to fires.

Additionally, more than $4.8 million would grow the firefighting force supplied by Washington’s prison system – from 300 to 380 workers – allowing incarcerated people to learn firefighting and forestry skills while reducing the state’s firefighting costs. The budget also would provide $100,000 to improve emergency communications and $234,200 to help assess landslide risk in areas affected by wildfire.

These requests support the commissioner’s Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan to make the fundamental changes necessary to stop and prevent uncharacteristically large wildfires.

“As a fire chief and incident management team member in a community impacted by wildfire, I know we need more resources on the ground,” Spokane County Fire District 9 Chief Jack Cates said. “With more full-time firefighters and air resources, the Department of Natural Resources will be better able to assist us in protecting endangered communities like Spokane County.”

Franz made her announcement alongside state Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, as well as Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation Chairman Rodney Cawston, Cowlitz 2 Fire & Rescue Chief Dave LaFave, and Matsuda.

“The facts are simple: When fire is running across the landscape, it’s terrifying. It doesn’t matter if it’s 15,000. It doesn’t matter if it’s 80,000 acres. It’s terrifying,” said LaFave, a member of the the state’s Wildland Fire Advisory Council and the Washington Fire Chiefs Association. “We want to see these initiatives move forward. We want to see a different decision today, so there’s a different outcome tomorrow.”

Because people cause 90 percent of all wildfires, teaching the public about wildfire prevention is another key part of the commissioner’s budget.

It would invest nearly $2 million in the creation of seven public-outreach specialists scattered across the state, and it includes $4.2 million for DNR’s Landowner Assistance Program. This program helps private forestland owners reduce the wildfire threat on their lands.

Restoring resilient, healthy forests

To get at the core of the problem, Franz’s budget request includes more than $5.7 million to speed up forest health restoration by creating a division solely committed to forest health. The proposal also asks for $17.7 million in capital budget funds to treat more than 32,000 acres of state, federal and private forests in targeted, high-risk areas.

And more than $724,000 in the proposal would dedicate two employees to manage the federal contracts, finances, and grants necessary to carrying out restoration treatments on federal lands. DNR and the U.S. Forest Service work together through the Good Neighbor Authority agreement to work toward their forest health goals.

“Wildfire doesn’t respect property boundaries,” Cawston said. “By increasing resources for our state’s wildland firefighters, we decrease the risk that wildfires pose to tribal communities and private property owners. This is a win-win for Washington.”