House of Representatives unanimously approves Hawkins’ utility wildfire bill

A proposal introduced by 12th District Sen. Brad Hawkins to implement recommendations of a key electric utilities wildfire group was approved today 98-0 by the House.

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 in this report issued in December 2020. According to Hawkins’ proposal, this would be accomplished by Aug. 1 and the group’s work would be maintained and updated on the Department of Natural Resources’ website. Hawkins’ bill also would build a process into statute for future collaboration between utilities and DNR and calls for a biennial report to the Legislature about ongoing work.

Before passing SB 5158, the House added an amendment to it, so the altered bill must be passed by the Senate before it can be approved by the Legislature and sent to Gov. Inslee for his consideration.

“I’m pleased the House has passed this important bill, which is key to the 12th District and other wildfire-prone areas,” said Hawkins. “Electric utilities throughout our state have shown strong support for this bill, including a leading effort by Chelan County PUD. If our utilities and DNR can implement these key recommendations to avoid wildfires and utility liability as well as keep communication flowing at all levels of government, that could be a huge benefit for our state and its PUDs.

“These recommendations are very important to many of my utilities, especially considering the 12th District’s recent history of devastating wildfires,” added Hawkins. “It is important to keep the momentum going on this issue, finalize the group’s recommendations, and ensure ongoing communications with the Legislature.

“I was very excited to partner with Chelan PUD and DNR on this bill. 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. Passage of this bill is a terrific way to start my second term in the Senate.”

During Senate Bill 5158’s public hearings, Chelan County PUD General Manager Steve Wright provided key testimony and appreciates Hawkins’ sponsorship of the bill. Wright said, “Commendation to Senator Hawkins. This is an important step to address the collaboration necessary to address a pervasive risk like wildfire that could impact everyone in Chelan County.”

George Caan, executive director of the Washington PUD Association, agrees with the importance of this bill.

“The Washington PUD Association supports Senate Bill 5158,” Caan said. “This legislation will continue the important collaboration between the Department of Natural Resources and electric utilities, including public utility districts, to protect our electricity systems and our state forests from the threat of wildfires.”

Franz previously 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.”

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.)