WENATCHEE — Reflecting on her fifth wildfire season as commissioner of public lands, Hilary Franz says the bottom line is this:
"I think the fire season itself was a win, even though we had 650,000 acres burn. Given the conditions on the landscape, it could've been a lot worse."
Washington state recorded 1,811 fires in 2021, but most were kept relatively small, despite a heatwave in June that set record highs throughout the Northwest.
As head of the state Department of Natural Resources, Franz commands the largest wildland firefighting force in Washington and has successfully argued for more money to fight wildfires and attack the root causes.
Franz discussed the season in a recent interview with The Wenatchee World. Her comments have been edited for clarity.
Hilary Franz: This season was set to be probably the worst one, frankly, with the majority of the state in drought — and that drought hit early. We had 220 fires just in the month of April, which is unprecedented. And we knew it was going to get worse and it was going to get really bad because of the drought predictions. So not only did we know we were going to be in a really tough spot, but we knew with the majority of the western United States in a drought they would also be in a similar challenging situation.
I took steps to be far more prepared this year than I have historically. After last year during those Labor Day firestorms where you know California, Oregon and Washington were hit really hard with significant fires. And we were putting in the request for firefighters and we're putting requests in for air resources and we kept getting, 'Hey, there's none available. You don't have enough values at risk compared to the other places that are on fire.'
And so we were having to make do with what we had and after that, Labor Day firestorm I said, I'm never doing this again. We are going to get everything we can up front. We will assess how bad the season's going to be and then we will get those air resources up front and put them in our exclusive control.
Pete O'Cain: In most instances, aircraft are requested as needed. However, there isn't always enough supply to meet demand. Franz described a conversation in May that led the DNR to secure exclusive rights to what was likely a record number of aircraft.
Franz: The story was it was late May and I went to our wildfire deputy and our head of aviation and I asked him, 'Are you sleeping at night?' And he's like, 'I am sleeping at night.' I go, 'Great. You have one hour to convince me why I should sleep at night because I am not sleeping at night.' And it's only May and I know it's going to get a lot worse before it gets better, and it's going to be a hard season. All of our foresters and firefighters could see it on the landscape because it was so bone dry.
So by the end of that meeting, I was not going to sleep any better so I said go get me everything we can. That was in late May.
Within just a few weeks we had gone from around 15 air resources to 35. That's the most I think we've had on our exclusive use contract.
O'Cain: From July to mid-September there were 11 to 17 major fires on the landscape at any given time, she said.
Franz: The reason the air resources were so key is that, you know ... out of 1,811 fires you probably heard about 25. The rest of them you never heard about because we kept 98% of our fires out of a Type 1, Type 2 or Type 3 incident management team and then we kept 93% of our fires below 10 acres because of those air resources.
We put them on the significant fires but we had enough that we could move them also and put out spot fires at the same time they were being deployed on the large fires.
So you didn't have more large fires occurring on the landscape while those significant fires were burning, and you also were able to contain those significant fires a lot better.
That's been one of my biggest pushes: initial attack, initial attack, initial attack. We are not going to have a chance of winning this war on wildfire if we don't leverage all the resources we have and get more and then put them on those fires — no matter how big or small they are — as soon as they start.
O'Cain: The DNR is adding two new aircraft to its fleet and is looking to expand its leasing program. The program is already active in Chelan County: The DNR provides a pilot and leases a helicopter from Chelan County Fire District 1. Franz also intends to outfit some helicopters with equipment that will allow them to fly at night — a tactic not currently available.
Franz said she's seeking ways to improve forest health.
Franz: I don't think there's anyone that says 'Oh, we don't have a forest health crisis on our lands,' and there isn't anyone that says we don't have a wildfire crisis. I think the challenge is trying to go fast enough and move projects fast enough.
O'Cain: Franz said federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service act carefully in part to avoid litigation. But increasing catastrophic fires affect much more than just forests, she said, noting that in addition to 650,000 acres burned this year, 820,000 burned in 2020 and a million burned in 2015.
Franz: So you look at all those acres that burned, that's fish and wildlife. That's more greenhouse gas emissions emitted into the atmosphere. That is more poor air quality and poor water quality right so the environmental damage from these wildfires is far greater than any potential impact that forest health does. Especially because forest health is really trying to enable these forests to be healthier so they can withstand fire and they still would provide the great fish and wildlife habitat that they need to."