Rep. Mary Dye: Persistence pays off as wildfire aviation suppression bill goes to governor

As you read this, House Bill 1498, approved unanimously by both the House and Senate, is on its way to the governor. This is the bill I authored that would ensure our local fire departments are reimbursed by the state when they deploy aircraft for an initial attack on a fire.

It seems like common sense to get on top of a brush, grass, or timber fire when it’s small, before it blows up into a catastrophic wildfire. Small fire departments, such as in Asotin County where Noel Hardin is the fire chief, don’t have helicopters or airplanes to fight fires. They must rely on their own fire engines and brush trucks when a fire breaks out. But it can be nearly impossible for those vehicles to get into remote canyons. They are pressed into making hard decisions, such as contracting with local aviation companies to help in the initial suppression or calling the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for state mobilization efforts, which has access to aviation.

Waiting for DNR to authorize aerial suppression can take hours — precious time in which a little fire can grow into a massive inferno, destroying everything in its path. But calling in local aviation suppression when the fire is small can quickly break the budgets of local fire departments. The cost of contracted helicopters is as much as $2,500 per hour.

Why not have the state reimburse our local fire departments, giving them the ability to call out local aerial suppression on initial attack, without breaking the bank? And in the meantime, saving the state what could be millions of dollars, as well as sparing destruction of valuable forests and rangelands. Common sense, right?

It took seven years!

I first introduced this legislation in 2016 after a phone call from Chief Hardin. The original legislation sought to create a fund — a pool of state money set aside to specifically reimburse local fire departments for their contracted aerial suppression efforts. Often, the bill would pass the committee, but be referred to the House Appropriations Committee that decides where the state budget is spent. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to advance the bill, that’s where it would stall.

Some people say the Capitol seems to be a “common-sense free zone.” And it seemed even more difficult because we needed the majority party behind us to move this legislation forward. But I never gave up. Instead, this year, I found another way forward. I worked with Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, who is a leading member of the state wildfire caucus. Together, we met with State Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz to work out a compromise. It was not easy to rewrite this bill, especially as the new version gave DNR more management authority than my original legislation. But I kept going. The persistence paid off.

Is the bill exactly what I wanted? No. But it does provide a pathway for our local fire departments to get reimbursed as the bill report reads: “Subject to the availability of funding, DNR must use suppression funding to assist local fire departments with aerial fire response capabilities during the critical initial attack phase of fighting a wildland fire.”

Chief Hardin is overjoyed. He noted in an email, “1498 is truly a win-win for the state and fire districts. Ultimately, with the passing of 1498, we will now be provided with funding to help mitigate and keep fires small and the need for mobilization. We will also see less damage to private, state, and federal lands we protect. Most important, it will be safer for firefighters and the citizens we are charged to protect.”

I share his joy that we can now save millions of dollars in wildfire suppression costs, and protect lands, property and lives. And I have hope that with persistence, sometimes common sense can prevail at the state Capitol.

Editor’s note: Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, serves the 9th Legislative District and is the ranking Republican on the House Environmental and Energy Committee.

State Representative Mary Dye, 9th Legislative District
432 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7942 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000