Cantwell gets an earful on wildfire issues

By:  K.C.Mehaffey
Source: The Wenatchee World

Chelan and Douglas county leaders had plenty of concerns about wildfire response, and ideas for how to be better prepared, at a roundtable discussion with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in Chelan on Monday.

But a little more than a year after the city of Chelan stood threatened on three sides by wildfire, leaders also had plenty of praise for what Cantwell is already doing to get ready for the next big wildfire season in North Central Washington.

When you make comments like, we need more (prescribed) burning, it instantly elevates it, and brings it to a new audience and level of believability, when a U.S. senator will make a comment like that,” said Chelan County Commissioner Doug England, adding, “We would like to address what we can do to help you in your efforts.”

Hosted by the city of Chelan, Monday’s discussion brought together top elected officials, as well as leaders in fire and emergency response, business leaders and others concerned with the economic impacts that wildfires have on a community.

Cantwell said she wanted to hear ideas about the technical issues, like how to provide faster response and build reliable communications, as well as policy issues, like finding more money and support for thinning and burning on the national forest.

Concerns and comments from local leaders were varied:

Reggie Collins, CEO of Chelan Fruit, said his company lost their facilities — about $90 million worth of property — but is now rebuilding. He said he still isn’t clear about why the fire that started on Chelan Butte wasn’t extinguished when it was still small. He also said he’d like to see more communication after the fact. He also wanted taxes he’s spending on the rebuild to stay in the local community.

Chelan County Fire District 7 Chief Tim Lemon said there are efforts for more education on Firewise, and work on a community-wide assessment.

Chelan City Administrator Paul Schmidt said the city was totally cut off from surrounding areas, with highways blocked, no phone service, no power and no internet service. “How can we get word out when we’re totally in the black?” he asked.

Lloyd McGee, co-chairman of the North Central Washington Forest Health Collaborative, spoke about the positive efforts for restoration, including a pilot that is monitoring smoke from prescribed fire. He said tools include not only prescribed burning and thinning, but also allowing wildfires to burn in areas where no resources are threatened. He also talked about the efforts to find a marketable use for small diameter wood that needs to be removed from forests, through the cross-laminated timber industry.

Rodney Smolden, supervisor for the Colville National Forest, said the Forest Service now spends about 50 percent of its budget on fighting fires, and in ten years, that’s projected to increase to 60 percent. “The system is broke,” he said.

Rory Turner, Commissioner for the Port of Chelan County, said he’s excited about the prospect of finding a use for small diameter timber for a marketable product.

Chelan Mayor Mike Cooney said he’d like to see residents who live inside city limits of Chelan, and other urban areas, be allowed to burn in the spring, so that citizens can make their homes safer from fire. He said the state Department of Ecology prohibits it, but did help the city pay to have brush removed and hauled to the landfill.

It’s safe to say we have a very long list of things we’d like to do to help people in rural communities,” Cantwell said after listening to concerns. “But we also are trying to come up with what we would say is a more permanent fix for what we call fire borrowing,” she said.

Fire borrowing is when the U.S. Forest Service has to take the money it has set aside for prescribed burning and improving forest health, and spend it on fighting fires instead.

Cantwell, ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, said fellow senators — both Democrats and Republicans — are united in wanting to provide the Forest Service with separate funds to respond to wildfires, so the important work of making forests more resilient to fires isn’t disrupted.

But, “I don’t think the House is in that same kind of mindset,” she said, although local Congressmen from North Central Washington are supportive.

She said told leaders that contacting some key lawmakers about their concerns may be helpful in eventually passing legislation.