Ways and Means Committee passes Hawkins’ bill to implement utility-wildfire group’s recommendations

Another hurdle has been cleared for legislation sponsored by 12th District Sen. Brad Hawkins to implement recommendations by the Electric Utilities Wildland Fire Prevention Task Force on ways to prevent wildfires.

Senate Bill 5158 was approved late today by the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The proposal now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, which acts as a final gate before bills can reach the Senate floor for a full Senate vote.

Hawkins’ proposal 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’ bill, this would be accomplished by Aug. 1 and the group’s work would be maintained and updated on the Department of Natural Resources’ website.

“I’m very excited that the bill has been approved by the Senate’s Ways and Means Committee, the committee that develops the Senate budget,” said Hawkins. “This is a very important step in the process because it’s an indicator that it could be included and funded in the budget. Our state’s electric utilities have stepped up in a big way to support this bill, which is very helpful. If our utilities and DNR can keep working together to implement these key recommendations to avoid wildfires and utility liability, that would 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 for this group, finalize its recommendations, and ensure ongoing communications with the Legislature.

“I’m very excited to be partnering 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. I look forward to keeping that going this year as I begin my next term.”

During Senate Bill 5158’s public hearing in the Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 8 (click here to view hearing), 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.”

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.)