Sen. Matt Boehnke and Rep. Stephanie Barnard sponsor legislation to enhance wildfire protection amidst utility-scale wind turbines

To address concerns surrounding the impact of utility-scale wind turbines on wildfire safety, Sen. Matt Boehnke and Rep. Stephanie Barnard have introduced House Bill 2117, accompanied by its companion legislation, Senate Bill 6188. This legislation aims to improve the permitting process for utility-scale wind turbines ― mitigating their effect on aerial firefighting capabilities in communities vulnerable to wildfires.

Companion bills, introduced simultaneously in both the House and Senate, streamline the legislative process by ensuring identical or similar proposals are considered in both chambers, increasing the likelihood of successful passage into law.

“This marks a significant step towards a safer future for our communities. Government policies must account for the risks posed by the siting of utility-scale wind turbines during wildfires, which can devastate lives, homes, and property. Amending these procedures enhances safety in areas in our region that need it most,” emphasized Barnard, R-Pasco.

HB 2117 proposes changes to existing state permitting procedures for utility-scale wind turbines. A key focus is placed on requiring applicants to demonstrate approval from responsible agencies and fire officials regarding location and height specifications.

A primary concern addressed in the bill is the obstruction posed by towering wind turbines to aerial firefighting efforts. Aerial firefighters, crucial in suppressing wildfires, face limitations when wind turbines exceed 496 feet in height, creating a significant obstacle in their flight path. With commercial wind turbines reaching upwards of 500 feet, pilots navigating firefighting missions are hindered in their ability to combat fires effectively.

In a recent opinion piece in the Tri-City Herald, former Benton City Mayor Linda Lehman highlighted the potential challenges posed by wind turbines in wildfire situations. Referring to the recent Red Mountain fire, she pointed out, “It became evident that if wind turbines were present on that route, ranging between 500 to over 600 feet above the ridgeline, using aircraft in their preferred alignment or altitude might not have been possible without compromising safety.”

Recognizing the urgent need to incorporate aerial firefighting requirements into the legislation for wildfire-prone areas, Boehnke, R-Kennewick, stressed the bill’s commitment to safeguarding lives, property, wildlife, habitat, and other crucial resources.

“We need government policies that consider the danger the siting of these utility-scale wind turbines poses when wildfires sweep through and destroy lives, homes, and property. Amending these procedures increases safety for the public in those areas that need and deserve adequate protection,” noted Boehnke.

HB 2117 has been scheduled for a public hearing on Monday, Jan. 15 in the House Environment and Energy Committee. SB 6188 has been referred to the Senate Local Government, Land Use and Tribal Affairs Committee, where it is expected to receive a public hearing date within the next several days. 

The 60-day 2024 legislative session began on Monday, Jan. 8, and will conclude on March 7.