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Public Lands Commissioner seeks extra $24 million to battle wildfires next season

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SPOKANE, Washington — Last year's wildfire season was the worst in state history, and state Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark on Thursday asked the Legislature for an additional $24 million to prevent a repeat in 2016.

Goldmark told a legislative committee in Olympia that the money would be used for additional equipment and training, and to try and put fires out earlier when they are small.

"It's my firm belief that by funding an increase in firefighting capacity and training, we can keep fire costs down," Goldmark told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Several members of the committee questioned why the state did not make better use of local resources, such as volunteers and businesses with bulldozers, in battling wildfires.

State Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, said firefighters from Ritzville arrived at one large fire last summer and were immediately sent home.

"These people were willing to help," Schmick said.

Goldmark said part of the extra $24 million would be used for joint training and to improve coordination among firefighters from numerous federal, state, local and tribal entities.

Goldmark also summarized the record-setting 2015 fire season. He noted first that three firefighters were killed battling the Twisp River Fire.

The fires destroyed more than 300 homes and were spread across the state, including 378 blazes in Western Washington, he said.

Goldmark told lawmakers that the approximately 1,500 wildfires reported in the state last season consumed more than 1 million acres, far and away the largest season in state history. The 2014 season, the second worst, saw more than 300,000 acres burned, he said.

Two-thirds of the fires were started by humans, while the rest were sparked by lightning.

The total cost of fighting the fires to federal, state and local governments was some $340 million, Goldmark said.

Despite that, there were not enough resources available to battle all the fires, he said.

The state was forced to accept assistance from 47 other states, plus the National Guard, U.S. Army and from professional firefighters from Australia and New Zealand, Goldmark said. There was even a call for volunteers, he said.

"The major issue was we were just out of resources," Goldmark said. "I don't want to continue to have to call people from afar."

The extra $24 million he is seeking is intended to extinguish fires before they get too big, Goldmark said.

Some of the money would be used for grants to local fire districts across the state to buy equipment and pay for training, Goldmark said. Some of the funds would also be dedicated to joint training involving federal, state, local, tribal and volunteer firefighters, so they work better together, he said.

Funds would also be used to contract with more aerial firefighting assets and to improve communications during wildfires, he said. Some of the money would go to hiring specialists and more professional firefighters in command and control positions, he said.

But some of the lawmakers were skeptical, stressing the state should concentrate on using local residents to more effectively attack small fires.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said there was a lot of frustration in his northeastern Washington district among people who have equipment and knowledge to fight wildfires, but are not used much by the state.

"We are never going to have enough money to deal with big fire years," Kretz said. "It's expensive to maintain people and equipment year round.

"I want assurance that we are doing everything we can to utilize (local) resources," Kretz said.

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