Seven years in the making, House gives unanimous approval to Rep. Mary Dye’s aviation wildfire suppression bill

The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday, 97-0, to approve legislation authored by Rep. Mary Dye that would allow local fire departments who use aviation suppression efforts on the initial attack of brush, timber and grass fires to be reimbursed by the state for those expenses.

The so-called “Aviation Assurance Funding” measure, House Bill 1498, was one of the final bills to be released to the House floor on Wednesday for a vote before 5 p.m. deadline, in which legislation had to pass from its chamber of origin to survive in the 2023 legislative session.

“This bill is very important in shoring up the frontline firefighting forces and defense against catastrophic wildfire. With the collaboration of the Department of Natural Resources, we found a path forward to provide the resources necessary to support some of our rural and volunteer fire districts,” said Dye, R-Pomeroy.

At the urging of Asotin County Fire District 1 Chief Noel Hardin, Dye has introduced the legislation every two years since 2016, her second year in office.

“Minutes count when a fire breaks out. If local fire districts can immediately begin using air support to attack a fire, it could be out much quicker, prevent destruction of timber and range land, protect our air quality, and save the state millions of dollars. That’s opposed to if those fire chiefs must wait for state mobilization efforts. In the period of that waiting time, a small fire could explode into a large one,” said Dye. “This bill would allow local air support to take place quickly and provide reimbursement to those local fire suppression entities.”

This year, Dye teamed up with Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, ranking member on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, a pilot, and a senior member of the State Legislative Wildfire Caucus. Together, they negotiated with state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz to craft the proposal into a measure that would have the support of fellow lawmakers and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The bill passed both the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and the House Appropriations Committee in February.

“This has been a long journey — one of collaboration, compromise, and working to educate lawmakers, state agency heads and others in Olympia about how we could prevent the devastation of wildfires by early aerial mobilization. This issue has been too important for my district and that’s why I have pushed for this legislation year after year. Now, we finally have a workable solution that I hope gains full legislative support,” said Dye. “This would finally give critical help to our local fire departments, who don’t necessarily have the financial resources to mobilize air suppression when it is most needed and are forced to make rapid decisions based on their finances at the time when a fire breaks out.”

The latest bill would authorize DNR, subject to appropriation, to use wildfire suppression funding to assist local and tribal fire departments with aerial fire response capabilities during the initial attack phase of fighting a wildland fire. It also would require DNR to convene a work group composed of wildfire aviation subject matter experts, wildfire aviation contractors, fire service representatives, wildland fire management staff and others to develop a state certification program for aircraft and pilots used in wildfire suppression.

“This has the potential to save property, money and lives. By the end of 2021, more than 100-thousand acres had burned in Asotin County. There are many acres of no-man’s land without fire protection. And our local fire departments become the first line of defense,” noted Dye. “With more support for aerial assets, there would be less damage to forests, range and crop lands. Even if the program is successful just a few times, it would likely save millions of taxpayer dollars.”

The bill now heads to the Senate for further consideration. The 2023 legislative session is scheduled to run through April 23.

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Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov