‘Unprecedented' wildfire season has begun, record state, federal funding being put to use

The wildfire season is off to a busy start, and state Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz calls it unprecedented.  With record money recently approved at the state and federal level, KIRO 7 is looking into what that means for the firefight this season.

“So far to date we've had 170 fires in Washington state,” Franz told KIRO 7.  “Fifty-three percent of them west of the Cascades and I have to stress that is a new phenomenon.  We're not used to having that many fires west of the Cascades and we're not used to having that many fires early in the season.”

The state legislature approved a record $50 million in its recent budget, and Congress and President Donald Trump approved $2 billion over the next eight years. That federal money is available staring this season.

“I was just back in D.C. last week thanking them for their leadership on that,” Franz said.

Much of the federal money will provide more drones, and KIRO 7 has showed you how drones help fight wildfires. Infrared technology pinpoints hot spots in real-time. Normally firefighters have to take a glove off and use the back of their hands, feeling the ground for hot spots.

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Washington state already has a drone program going, and Franz says that means they'll get that federal money more quickly this season.

The influx of money is also helping clear forests of fuel for wildfires.

“It's going on right now,” Franz said.  “So it is an all year, 365 day project.  And now with the funding at the state level and the federal level we'll be able to accelerate it even more. We've done about 30K acres last year, we have 50k acres in the pipeline this year, and the goal is by next year we'll be at 70K acres or more.”

The state money will help make 30 seasonal firefighters, full time.  And it will add 2 more helicopters that dump water on fires.  The state currently has 7 choppers.

“We're having to spread the same amount over more of a geographic area, which is why we need more helicopters,” Franz said.  “They're the same Vietnam war era, they fought in the Vietnam War.  Our mechanics are amazing mechanics.  They put them together part by part and make them beautiful machines.”

The new choppers won't be ready until next year, but as the state and federal money comes in it's being put right to use.