The government must change how it funds wildfire suppression and prevention, including forest thinning.
Fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting later into the fall. More than 8 million acres have burned so far in 2017. Ash and smoke have made air quality unsafe. Tragic loss of life and homes in California reminds us again what’s at stake. The U.S. Forest Service has spent $2.5 billion on fire suppression this year — a historical record. This shift to more severe and expensive fire seasons has been called the new normal, and that is a terrifying prospect.
It’s time to change our approach to wildfire:
• The government must change how it funds wildfire suppression.
Unlike other natural disasters, the Forest Service and Department of Interior are required to plan and pay for wildfire response out of their annual budgets. But longer fire seasons, increased development in the wildland-urban interface, and millions of forest acres with saturated fuel loads are leading to skyrocketing costs of wildfire response.
In the last several years, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service budget has been consumed by wildfire suppression, and by 2025, it could be upward of 67 percent. To make matters worse, in bad years like 2017 when the agencies exceed their annual allocation, they are forced to borrow from other programs to cover costs. This includes some of the very programs that help restore forests and make them resilient to future wildfires. This is a counterproductive and outdated mechanism that needs to be changed immediately, and there is a broad and diverse group of stakeholders — from environmentalists to the timber industry — working to make this happen.
• Congress must provide relief to help our communities and landscapes recover.
Lives have been lost, property has been destroyed and businesses that rely on seasonal recreation or work in the woods have suffered. Congress must include wildfire-damaged communities in any natural disaster relief packages being debated. This should include rebuilding critical infrastructure like trails, roads and bridges, and actions to make forests more resilient to fires through forest thinning and hazardous fuels reduction. It’s not enough to fund only wildfire suppression, we must do everything possible to restore normalcy in affected communities.
• Congress must get ahead of the problem.
We have an opportunity and obligation in the West to reduce the impact of future events. For too long, Congress has fallen back on a reactive approach to uncharacteristic wildfires instead of proactively addressing the causes. They must ignore well-intentioned yet uninformed calls to dismantle environmental protections or not allow logging at all, and instead focus on using existing authorities and implementing shovel-ready projects.
In Oregon and Washington alone, there are more than 2 million acres of forestland that have already received environmental review and approval for restoration, but it has yet to be carried out. These projects will reduce fuel loads, improve forest and watershed health, and allow fire to return in a way that it can be controlled and be a benefit to the land.
We need funding for landscape-scale solutions, where much larger forests can be thinned and treated. There are concrete examples that this approach works: the 2012 Mustang Complex fire on Hughes Creek in Idaho, the 2014 Oregon Fire at Weaverville, California, and this summer’s Milli Fire near Sisters, Oregon. In each case, wildfire slowed and became less intense when it reached the restoration sites, allowing fire crews to work safely and limit destruction.
Forest restoration projects are ready and waiting but will only be implemented if Congress is willing to pay for them. Doing so will protect firefighters and communities, put people to work in the woods and decrease the massive costs of future wildfire suppression. It’s time to stop playing catch up and get ahead.
• We must all play our part.
Call your representatives and senators and tell them to pass a wildfire funding fix and a surge-funding disaster response bill — a large, one-time funding package from Congress to respond to disasters, including wildfire — that helps communities recover and helps reduce wildfire risk in the future.