Two years ago, the Legislature created the Electric Utilities Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force that focused on ways to prevent wildfires. This critical work included an effort to begin drafting model agreements to remove dangerous trees, developing communications protocols, and considering investigation recommendations. Now that the task force recently released its recommendations to the Legislature, 12th District Sen. Brad Hawkins is seeking to codify the group as a DNR advisory committee and to help implement its recommendations.
Hawkins’ proposal, Senate Bill 5158, would direct state Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz to work with the Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Advisory Committee to implement recommendations recently offered by the Utility Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force, which issued its final report last month. According to the bill, this would be accomplished by Aug. 1 and the group’s work would be maintained and periodically updated on DNR’s website.
“These recommendations are very important to many of my utilities, especially considering the 12th District’s recent history of catastrophic wildfires,” said Hawkins. “It is important to keep the momentum going for this group to finalize its work products, to ensure posting of critical information to the DNR website, and to ensure ongoing communications with the Legislature.
“I’m very excited to be partnering with Senator Christine Rolfes, DNR, and electric utilities on this bill,” added Hawkins. “Commissioner Hilary Franz and her staff have been awesome to work with in past years and we accomplished some great things together in my first Senate term. I look forward to keeping that going this year as I begin my next term.”
Hawkins’ bill has been referred to the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources and Parks Committee, where it is scheduled to receive a public hearing Jan. 19 at 1:30 p.m.
“Senator Hawkins’ proposed legislation addresses the increasingly important issue of the nexus between electric utility operations and wildfire risk management,” said Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright. “The legislation expands a fruitful process between utilities and DNR Commissioner Franz. It performs the dual duty of helping protect homeowners from fire risk and the risk of large electric bills.”
Commissioner Franz also spoke to the bill and her positive working relationship with Hawkins. Franz said, “A big ‘thank you’ to Senator Hawkins and his leadership on this bill and to all the stakeholders who took time to be part of the task force during a year of uncertainty. We had long-overdue and difficult conversations that brought us to consensus on many issues that will support all our wildfire prevention work as well as post-wildfire processes. The recommendations in this bill will solidify our work and ensure we keep the momentum of the task force going.”
Under SB 5158, advisory committee membership would include representatives of entities providing retail electric service, including:
- one person representing each investor-owned utility;
- two persons representing municipal utilities;
- two persons representing public utility districts;
- two persons representing rural electric cooperatives;
- one person representing small forestland owners;
- one person representing industrial forestland owners;
- other persons with expertise in wildland fire risk reduction and prevention;
- and no more than four other persons designated by the public lands commissioner.
Hawkins is proud of his strong partnership with DNR. During Hawkins’ first term as 12th District senator, three of his bills related to forest health or wildfire prevention were passed by the Legislature and signed into law. DNR worked diligently alongside him for each effort.
In 2017, the Legislature approved SB 5546, which directs DNR to set up a framework for assessing the health of fire-prone lands and treating them. It sets a specific goal of assessing and treating 1 million acres over 16 years, most likely through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. The bill also includes a stakeholder process and biennial progress reviews to the Legislature.
The second measure, Senate Bill 5270, which was passed unanimously by both legislative chambers and signed into law by the governor in 2017, removes the “temporary” label from the contract-timber harvest program operated by DNR. The program allows the agency to hire someone to harvest timber and sort the logs, after which DNR can sell them. It began in 2003 and was expanded by lawmakers in 2009.
In 2018, SB 6211 became law. It gives DNR immediate authority to handle revenue and authorize spending under the Good Neighbor Authority agreement signed by DNR and the U.S. Forest Service in 2017.
(Photo caption: A hillside burns during the Chelan Complex and First Creek fires near Chelan in August 2015.)