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We’ve grown accustomed to disagreement creating political impasse. But is political division so bad that there’s no progress even when folks agree on a solution?
That’s the question Western conservation groups are asking as they push Congress to reform the way the government allocates funding to fight wildfires.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Dylan Kruse of Sustainable Northwest. “We have more than 100 legislators from both parties in agreement. We have more than 200 organizations calling for the same legislative package. Everybody knows we need to fix this problem. And still, while disaster funding is moving, once again the chance to solve the problem is lost.”
Kruse’s frustration, along with a chorus of other rural voices in the West, is about how the federal government spends more and more money fighting catastrophic wildfires while reducing money from programs that could keep the fires from getting out of hand in the first place.
A further complication is that wildfires are not treated like other disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding, where Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding can support emergency response and re-building.
The current structure is described by many policymakers as “fire borrowing.” As previously reported in the Daily Yonder, the money that pays for the firefighters and their equipment largely comes from the U.S. Forest Service and U. S. Department of Interior budgets. The portion of the budget that goes to fight fires is calculated from a ten-year average of fire suppression spending. If the formula calls for more firefighting money but Congress doesn’t increase the overall agency budget, the Forest Service and Interior must pull the money from other parts of their agencies’ budgets. As wildfire costs have risen dramatically in the past decade, the wildfire budget eats up a growing share.
One of the places that gets cut is forest management funding, which can prevent fires from happening in the first place. Treating forests before they catch fire saves lives, property, and, in the long run, money, advocates say.
Even before accounting for California’s recent conflagration of wildfires, 2017 has been the most expensive year ever for forest fires. The U. S. Forest Service tracks the Cost of Fire Operations, and reports that there are currently, “12,900 personnel engaged in firefighting activities, supported by 60 helicopters and 19 airtankers. Year to date, there have been 51,277 fires covering 8.76 million acres across all jurisdictions, 2.3 million of which are on national forests.”
Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) recently wrote, “If we don’t fix this vicious cycle, then we’re going to have to continue to face increasingly disastrous wildfires that suck up greater and greater amounts of resources. We need to be providing the Forest Service with enough funding to adequately fight fires during wildfire season, without raiding other funds and programs — and the best way to do that is to fund the biggest wildfires like the natural disasters they are.”
“Right now, our forests are time bombs, waiting to go off. It’s time to get serious about reducing their risk,” Merkley warned.
These warnings are echoed by the forest science community as well. Oregon State Forestry Professor Dr. John Bailey recently testified to the House Environment Subcommittee, saying “we are saddled with a legacy of outdated thinking in addition to accumulated fuels – and we are moving quickly into an uncertain climatic future. Wildfire is inevitable. Our forests will continue to burn regardless of what we say or do today.
Dr. Bailey, much like the bipartisan policymakers that support the Wildfire Fix, did note the solutions available. “But we can better choose when and how it burns, and how it can be consistent with broad land management objectives. There are abundant win-win-win situations at hand if we choose to act proactively and wisely,” Bailey said.
As the trajectory of increasing wildfires continues, Sustainable Northwest’s Kruse describes how the fire borrowing backlog impacts his backyard. “In Washington, Oregon and California alone there’s more than 2 million acres of federal forestland already approved for active management. They’ve made it through the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Process. They’re ready to go. But the budget is not there to implement the practices.”
The practices Kruse describes that are most beneficial to forest health and wildfire prevention are a combination of thinning dense stands and setting “managed fires” to burn brush and undergrowth. These activities help to reduce overall fuel volume, which makes the larger uncontrollable fire outbreaks much less likely.
Like the Wildfire Fix, there is broad, bipartisan support for these kinds of management practices throughout the West, said Kruse. “We’re very supportive of active forest management. It’s the moderate position, the way to get things done.”
Fixing the way wildfire funding is handled, as well as re-classifying fires as disasters that fall under FEMA programs, were not included in the disaster relief bill that Congress passed last week.
Kruse says that now all communities working on wildfire issues, both rural and urban, are organizing to push for a solution in the December federal budget package that Congress must pass. “We’ve been waiting for more than six years to solve this problem. Everybody agrees on a solution. Now we have to get it done. Congress must deliver a budget to address these issues by December.”
Otherwise, rural communities in the West will continue to face a growing volume of dangerous, expensive wildfires that drain funding and resources. Preventative land management practices that scientists and rural organizations say have a track record of success will have to wait.