New Strategies, Budgets Needed To Fight Chronic Western Wildfires, Experts Say
New tools and new strategies are needed to fight and prevent wildfires nationwide. That was the sentiment at a field hearing held in Seattle by the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The hearing was convened by U.S. Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, a Democrat, and John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican. They are collecting testimony for the Wildland Fire Management Act of 2015.
The Act would establish community plans to reduce the risks of fires while also aiming to increase the country's ability to fight major fires more effectively.
One issue highlighted by Cantwell is the need to solve what’s known as “the fire borrowing problem.” This is when funding for emergency response to wildfire is taken from prevention program budgets. She says since 2002, more than $13 billion dollars was “borrowed” in this way.
“And that money was borrowed from other forest service programs to cover emergency firefighting costs," Cantwell said at the hearing.
"For the same amount of money, we could have a 50 percent increase in the number of air tankers. We could have 2,000 more fire fighters. We could have treated hazardous fuels on more than a million acres of the wildland-urban interface, where many of the homes are at risk.”
Cantwell says a report from the Forest Service shows that every dollar spent on wildfire prevention saves $1.70 in fire suppression costs.
The committee’s work on the Act began after last year’s record-setting wildfire season, largely in response to Washington’s Carleton Complex fire, said Cantwell, the committee's ranking Democrat.
“And now this fire season came upon us and we saw 7.7 million acres of US land burnt, which is double last year’s fire season,” Cantwell said.
With the impacts of wildfire growing exponentially, she says bipartisan support for the act is coming through –- especially since it’s largely focused on saving money through better prevention and preparedness measures.
Expert witness Michael Medler, a professor of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University and a firefighter, said we need bipartisan support and fast – because the worst fires are yet to come.
“Frankly, I see no reason that in the near future combining climate change with the kinds of fuels that we’re seeing built up and the kinds of building we’re seeing into the back country – I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fire actually take out 20,000 homes in a community like San Diego or Los Angeles.”
He says that’s the kind of damage that Congress needs to be worrying about as they consider fire prevention policies moving forward.
Cantwell and Barrasso hope to introduce the legislation and get it passed before the start of next year’s wildfire season.