LEAVENWORTH — “Without change to our physical landscape, we will continue to have devastating fires,” said Ross Frank, commissioner for Chelan County Fire District 3. Federal land managers need funds and direction to reduce the fuel load on public lands and reduce the threat of wildfire. “Until that happens we will not succeed. There needs to be a will to get this work done,” said Frank.
The commissioner made the comments at a meeting Tuesday before U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and a room filled with local, state and federal officials at the Chelan County Fire District 1 Easy Street station.
We have all heard it before. Frank, if I recall, said something very similar a year ago, at a very similar meeting with Cantwell during the Carlton Complex fire in the Methow Valley. Mostly the same people were there. I think Frank was sitting in the very same chair.
It was déjà vu. Catastrophe has become ordinary. Six of the seven worst fire seasons in the last century have hit since 2000, said Cantwell. The recommended remedies are still the same. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if they are back in the same room next year, talking about the same things after a similar natural disaster.
This is no fault of Cantwell or Congress, but common sense is a long time coming. Cantwell said she and her committee are preparing to reveal in a week or so the details of the Wildfire Management Act of 2015, which would change the way federal agencies approach fighting wildfires, and change the way Congress funds the effort. The goal is to reduce the frequency of catastrophic fires and reduce the number of homes lost. It would recognize that funding to manage public forests has been inadequate. It would create one fund for all firefighting operations, any surplus to be spent revamping the air tanker fleet. It would treat the largest fires as natural disasters, the cost of suppressing them paid the way other disasters are covered. That would end the self-destructive annual practice of draining money for fire prevention to fight the fires we did not prevent.
Aspects of this bill have been proposed in Congress before. Bills to accomplish similar goals are pending in the House. But so far they have failed over budget paranoia, urban indifference to rural needs, fears of timber harvest or smoke from controlled burns.
We’ve got to get over it. It shouldn’t be so difficult to convince some Eastern congressperson that preventing fires is cheaper than fighting them, or that federal forests are unhealthy, overgrown and dangerously dry in a drought-plagued and roasting West.
“I don’t think a lot of people can grasp how powerful and fast these fires are,” said U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn., fresh from choking on smoke at his Chelan vacation home.
“We need to be proactive in reducing these hazardous fuels,” said Lloyd McGee of the Nature Conservancy. That requires controlled burns and mechanical treatment. Mechanical treatments, aka thinning, require somewhere to take the removed fuel — infrastructure, a sawmill. “The public owners of the natural resource need the mill,” said Roger Wristen of the Cascadia Conservation District.
The best news, is many of the local people who spoke up are doing something about it. Members of the North Central Forest Collaborative and Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and others are, to an ever-greater degree, actually making a difference. Wenatchee Mayor Frank Kuntz called for local initiative, perhaps even a wildfire prevention taxing district similar to flood-control efforts. State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, mentioned other states with a fire prevention surcharge on homes in dangerous areas. We can discuss it, she said.
Good to raise these issues and discuss new possibilities. The more of these mid-tragedy meetings you attend, the more you realize how important local initiative is, and will be. Waiting isn’t productive.