Wildfires: an Ounce of Prevention Worth a Pound of Cure

Wildfires have become an increasingly costly and devastating problem in the West over the past decades as federal land managers have increasingly restricted logging and road building and maintenance.

The average number of acres burned each year in the past decade has topped 6 million, compared to 3 million a year in the 1970s. As of the end of October of this year, there already had been nearly 53,000 fires that burned more than 8.8 million acres. In 2015, 9.7 million acres burned by the end of October.

The cost just for fighting wildfires this year is approaching a record-breaking $3 billion, and that doesn’t take into account the economic costs of burned homes, agriculture, and infrastructure. The wine country fires in mid-October in northern California are estimated to have resulted in $85 billion in economic losses.

The cost of fighting fires for the Forest Service has grown over the recent years from 15 percent of the agency’s annual budget to 55 percent.

Currently, there are efforts on two fronts to change land management practices and spending from the costly and dangerous battling of fires to actually preventing them from occurring.

Earlier this year, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who is over the Bureau of Land Management, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who heads the Forest Service, directed all federal land agencies to adopt more aggressive efforts to prevent wildfire through robust fuels reduction and other prevention techniques.

“This administration will take a serious turn from the past and will proactively work to prevent forest fires through aggressive and scientific fuels reduction management to save lives, homes, and wildlife habitat. It is well settled that the steady accumulation and thickening of vegetation in areas that have historically burned at frequent intervals exacerbates fuel conditions and often leads to larger and higher-intensity fires,” said Secretary Zinke in a press release. “These fires are more damaging, more costly, and threaten the safety and security of both the public and firefighters. In recent fire reviews, I have heard this described as ‘a new normal.’ It is unacceptable that we should be satisfied with the status quo. We must be innovative and where new authorities are needed, we will work with our colleagues in Congress to craft management solutions that will benefit our public lands for generations to come.”

On that Congressional front, this past week the House passed and sent to the Senate the Resilient Federal Forests Act, sponsored by Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican and licensed forester, that would shorten the environmental review process for forest thinning, curb frivolous litigation by self-styled environmentalists and allow federal land managers to contract with private lumber mills to remove dead and dying trees and use the proceeds of the timber sale to better manage the lands.

The bill passed 232-188, largely along party lines, with less than a dozen Democratic votes. Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei voted in favor of the bill, while Nevada Democrats Dina Titus, Jacky Rosen, and Ruben Kihuen opposed it.

“This is a bill based on a simple idea — that we must do more to expand active management in federal forests,” Republican Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, was quoted as saying. “With this bill, we tackle not only the symptoms of the crisis but also its root causes. We provide the resources for our firefighters, but also tools for our land managers to improve conditions on the ground and proactively mitigate the threat of wildfire.”

Rep. Amodei spoke on the floor of the House in 2015 in support of a similar bill that passed the House but died in the Senate, noting the need for fire prevention because once high desert forests in Nevada burn it takes a hundred years for them to grow back. He also noted that the fires devastate endangered and threatened species and their habitat.

Oddly enough, one of the main arguments against the bill by the environmentalists is that logging threatens endangered and threatened species. More so than raging wildfire?

We applaud the efforts by Secretaries Zinke and Perdue to spend our money more wisely and encourage the Senate to pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act. — TM

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