Wildfire expenses hit new record, over state's budget

ISSAQUAH, Wash. — The Washington Department of Natural Resources is requesting an additional $24 million in prevention and preparation funding, after seeing several years of firefighting expenses hit millions of dollars over budget.

In 2015, DNR spent $137.2 million more than the Legislature budgeted.

In 2014, DNR spent about $70 million over budget. DNR told KIRO 7 that they have been over budget five out of the last six years.

While the state sets a budget for fighting wildfires, there is a separate budget for DNR to do prevention and preparation.

It’s that other budget that DNR would like to increase by requesting an addition $24.3 million. The current budget for training, equipment and wildfire prevention is $7.41 million.

DNR told KIRO 7 their previous funds for preparedness and training were less than $4 million in 2014 and less than $6 million in 2015.

Peter Goldmark, the Washington commissioner of public lands, said “It’s what I believe is the first step that we must take to increase our firefighting capacity both at the local level and at the statewide level. This investment ahead of a fire season can increase our odds of keeping the expenditure down.”

DNR must ask state lawmakers for the $137.2 million that was spent over the firefighting budget, plus the additional $24.3 million they hope can be added to prevention and preparation.

State Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah) said the state Legislature could find that money in the rainy day fund.

KIRO 7 asked where money will come from in the future, if fires continue to grow. Mullet said that will be discussed for 2017, when the Legislature makes a new budget.

“Every two years in the odd years you do your big giant budgets, where you’re doing your $38-billion, $40-billion dollar budgets. And I think you use it as a plug for a supplemental year,” Mullet said.

“The reality of these fire seasons is that our climate is undergoing rapid change,” Goldmark said.

2015 saw the state’s largest wildfire in history. Three firefighters and more were injured fighting the fire in Twisp.

Goldmark said weather predictions suggest El Nino will produce another hot, dry fire season. He said DNR teams are preparing for the worst.

With the additional $24.3 million the department is requesting, they plan to spend it on local fire district assistance grants, joint training, coordinated command, fire communications, aerial attack, and wildfire prevention and fuels reduction.

In order to use the rainy day fund like Mullet suggested, the Legislature would need to approve that with a two-thirds majority when they are back in session.

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