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Apprehensive Lawmakers Try To Head Off Repeat Of Bad Wildfire Season

Steve Snodgrass
Flickr -
File photo. A Washington state lawmaker has proposed to ban the sale or use of consumer fireworks statewide from June 1 through September 30.

A proposed summertime ban on consumer fireworks is firing people up at the Washington state Capitol. It’s just one of many ideas being floated in Northwest statehouses to avoid a repeat of last summer's bad wildfire season.

State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, works as a firefighter when he's not serving in the Washington Legislature. He has proposed to ban the sale or use of consumer fireworks statewide for the duration of this coming summer, from June 1 through September 30.

"We can decrease the amount of human-caused wildfires and save our state money and save a lot of our citizens from having to deal with wildfires and the suffering that comes with that,” Van De Wege said.

Dealers and nonprofits that sell fireworks for fundraisers mobilized to snuff out this idea.

"If this bill passes, I will be out of a job,” Katie Westall of Tacoma’s Thunder Fireworks said. “But more importantly, hundreds of nonprofit groups around the state will struggle to pay their bills, buy their uniforms or they will cease to exist altogether."

Other people from the fireworks industry who followed Westall to the microphone during a public hearing of the state House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Thursday predicted that tribal fireworks stands would continue to do brisk business no matter what laws the legislature passed because states don't have jurisdiction over indian reservations.

The negative reception Van De Wege's proposal got raises doubts about its future prospects at the Washington Legislature.

In Idaho, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter asked the state legislature this week to authorize and fund additional Rangeland Fire Protection Associations, which are groups of ranchers who receive professional training to provide quick initial attack on range fires and assist government firefighters once they arrive to put out the flames.

On Monday in his State of the State Address, Otter said he anticipates "another rough fire season" in the year ahead. For that reason, he supported adding nearly $1 million to beef up the Idaho Department of Lands' wildfire division "with a focus on improving initial response.”

The first move by budget writers in the Idaho Legislature on Thursday was to approve some of that request to bump up fire line staffing and to keep some seasonal state firefighters in service for more of the year.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee proposed $12.6 million extra to prepare for the upcoming wildfire season in his 2016 budget update. That includes money to hire more managers for large fires, more training for National Guard and local firefighters, grants to local fire districts to upgrade equipment and increased funding for a fire prevention outreach program called Firewise.

Washington's Department of Natural Resources has asked for twice that much in additional funding for the 2016 fire season.

Oregon's legislature returns for its 2016 Session next month and is expected to take up the wildfire topic then as well.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.