With wildfire season already underway in Western Washington, the state's Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said firefighters are better equipped to handle more intense wildfires across the state.
During a visit to Whatcom and Skagit counties this week, where she sat down for an interview with Cascadia Daily News, Franz focused on the environmental challenges the Department of Natural Resources has faced through her tenure — like wildfires — and her approach to solving them.
Two months into her gubernatorial campaign, Franz also met with tribes, farmers and even military divers near Semiahmoo during her Monday and Tuesday visit to discuss challenges facing voters.
“We spend too much time, oftentimes, in disagreement and differences and division, versus actually working on the ground to understand what the problem is at the community level, developing a plan and a strategy, and then working tirelessly to implement it,” Franz said from a Burlington coffee shop on Tuesday, July 18.
At the start of her term, Franz said she met with fire chiefs from across the state to understand what DNR could do to support wildfire fighting efforts. She heard DNR described as the “do not respond” and “do not resuscitate” agency and learned about the agency’s eight Vietnam War-era helicopters stationed in Olympia.
“They all fought in the Vietnam War. That’s all we had to fight fires, and we weren’t even using them,” she said. “It took four to six hours to get them [to a fire]. Time is everything in a wildfire, and I immediately got to work to leverage our air resources. Now, the moment smoke is in the air, we’re going to fly.”
Franz said she pushed for additional resources and funding to help prevent loss of life or the potential razing of communities. The helicopters, now numbering at least 10 and pre-positioned in regions prone to larger fires, will help stave off additional wait times, and firefighters go through Franz’s new training program to prepare for each season.
Experts say fire seasons are likely going to intensify. In the last decade, Washington has experienced its three worst fire seasons in recorded history: the years 2015, 2020 and 2021 brought record levels of burned acreage, with more than 1 million acres in 2015 alone.
“We tragically lost three firefighters' lives and an entire town burned down, and it wasn’t an anomaly,” Franz added.
Franz said DNR is uniquely poised to help prepare for wildfires because of its role in timber management, which can rage from thinning to planting trees. Although timber sales from DNR-managed properties have been controversial in Whatcom and beyond, Franz said forest management can help reduce the number of dead, dying, and diseased trees in a stand that later could fuel major fires.
“If we don’t [manage it], nature will get there first and we have a catastrophic fire,” Franz said. “Wildfires are not the symptom of the problem. It’s that we have dying forests. They’re dying because they are too dense, and they’re all competing for more water and soil nutrients.”
Proper management, Franz said, almost always means recognizing that boosting the economy and supporting the environment can go hand-in-hand.
“The economy and the environment aren’t at odds with each other,” she clarified. “We can address our greatest environmental crisis and our economic crisis at the same time.”
Funds from tree sales on DNR-managed public lands help finance school construction, rural libraries, emergency responders and state universities.
Even so, several DNR-managed tree sales have seen significant pushback in Whatcom County, including the currently paused Brokedown Palace sale, the partially canceled Bessie Sorts sale and the recently hewed Box of Rain sale.
During her visit, Franz highlighted other challenges facing voters, such as housing instability, child care access and the fight against climate change. All require conversations with community members across political and ideological lines, she said.
Though the state’s gubernatorial election won’t take place until November 2024, Franz is already facing eight other candidates, including current Attorney General Bob Ferguson, state Sen. Mark Mullet and former federal Rep. Dave Reichert.