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Public lands chief wants more money to beef up state's firefighting crews


SPOKANE, Washington — On the heels of the state's worst wildfire season, Washington's public lands chief said Wednesday he is asking the Legislature for more money to beef up the state's firefighting crews.

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark wants more than $24 million next year to add firefighters, equipment and training next year. The money would help local fire districts, modernize fire communications, add aircraft and train teams of local, state and contracted firefighters to work together, he said.

"We will not let the Evergreen State become the Wildfire State," Goldmark said Wednesday as he announced his budget request in Spokane. He was joined by tribal members and local fire officials.

Three U.S. Forest Service firefighters were killed in August and about 1,570 square miles burned as this summer's wildfires raged across the state, torching rain forests on the Olympic Peninsula and drought-stressed forests in eastern Washington.

More than 1,500 blazes destroyed hundreds of homes, forced thousands to flee towns and cost about $320 million to battle. About 70 percent of those fires were caused by people, while the remaining fires were started by lightning.

The largest of the wildfires, called the Okanogan Complex, scorched more than 522,920 acres, or 817 square miles, in north-central Washington.

The record-breaking fire season followed another devastating season last year.

The fire season was so bad that the state of Washington put out a call for volunteers to fight the flames, and the state mobilized the National Guard to help.

Goldmark — who heads the Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of private, state and tribal-owned forestlands — is also asking the Legislature for about $137 million to cover cost overruns of fighting this year's wildfires.

Earlier this year, Goldmark sought $4.5 million in the two-year budget to buy new fire engines and hire more crews; lawmakers approved $1.2 million. He also sought $20 million over two years for tree-thinning and other wildfire prevention programs; lawmakers gave him $10 million.

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