Governor signs Rep. Mary Dye’s bill allowing state reimbursement to local fire districts who use aerial suppression on wildland fires

With a stroke of his pen, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Rep. Mary Dye’s aerial suppression bill into law Monday afternoon, culminating a seven-year effort to get the state to reimburse local fire districts for their costs of using helicopters and airplanes to attack a wildland fire when it initially breaks out.

Dye and Asotin County Fire District 1 Chief Noel Hardin came to the governor’s office at the state Capitol on Monday to witness the signing of House Bill 1498.

“Seven years ago, I placed a call to Representative Dye asking for help from the state regarding the use of aviation on wildland fires. Though state mobilization is an incredible resource for fire districts and fire departments, there was a hefty gap in time to get air resources on a fire quickly. In southeastern Washington, we have light flashy fuels, and it doesn’t take long to end up with a huge fire running through bluffs and hard-to-access areas. The goal is always to get the fire out as fast and safely as possible, and the key has been from the air,” said Hardin.

“Minutes count when a fire breaks out. If local fire districts can immediately begin using air support to attack a fire, it could be extinguished much quicker, preventing the destruction of timber and range land, protecting our air quality, and saving the state millions of dollars,” said Dye, ranking Republican on the House Environment and Energy Committee.

Dye, R-Pomeroy, says the cost of contracted helicopters is as much as $2,500 per hour and calling in local aviation suppression can quickly break the budgets of local fire districts. However, waiting for the State Fire Marshal to authorize state mobilization involving aerial suppression can take hours — time in which a small fire can grow into a massive, destructive inferno.

“Air resources are expensive and can eat into a small fire district budget. Being able to call for those resources right out of the gate has a tremendous amount of potential to keep fires small and possibly keep the fire from going to a full state mobilization fire,” said Hardin. “We will still call for mobilization like we always have, but this fund will help cover us until we get the mobilization approval. We may only need a few hours of flight time from a helicopter to squash a fire. That is much cheaper than a full state mobilization with air, ground and management resources.”

House Bill 1498 directs the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), subject to appropriation, to use wildfire suppression funding to assist local fire departments with aerial fire response capabilities during the initial attack phase of fighting a wildland fire.

Dye originally introduced the bill in 2016 after discussing it with Hardin. After years of the measure stalling in the House Appropriations CommitteeDye teamed up this year 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 received the support of fellow lawmakers and DNR.

“It took a while and, although the bill isn’t exactly what we had envisioned, it will accomplish much of the same goals, which is to stop a wildland fire before it gets large. This will give our local fire districts the ability to act quickly, saving millions of dollars in suppression costs, reducing carbon emissions, and protecting our valuable forests and range lands,” added Dye.

“House Bill 1498 is truly a win-win for the state and fire districts. We will now be provided with funding to help mitigate and keep fires small and reduce the need for mobilization,” said Hardin. “We will also see less damage to private, state and federal lands we protect, and most importantly, it will be safer for firefighters and the citizens we are charged to protect.”

The new law takes effect July 22.

PHOTO: Asotin County Fire District 1 Chief Noel Hardin (left), Rep. Mary Dye (right), and Camille Nelson, Dye’s legislative aide (far right), observe Gov. Jay Inslee signing House Bill 1498. The measure allows the state to reimburse local fire districts that use aerial suppression on initial breakout of a wildland fire.

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Washington State House Republican Communications
houserepublicans.wa.gov