Forest management 'smart and responsible' when it comes to fires

Jul 18, 2014

Environmentalists’ arguments against forest thinning may have a little less impact after crews from Arizona’s San Juan fire shared reports that the control of the blaze had improved considerably once it hit areas that had longterm forest management practices in place. And that very argument has fueled lawmakers hoping to make some changes in current wildfire management practices.

Mesa, AZ, Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney told a Senate panel last week that forest thinning is a “smart and responsible” way to curb wildfires and that fighting fires after they’ve started cannot be the only strategy.

The hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee came one week after President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve $615 million in emergency funding for wildfire efforts for the rest of this fiscal year.

“While I appreciate the administration’s proposal to spend more money on suppression, I would prefer a more fiscally sound way to address rising wildfire costs,” Tenney said.

The $615 million wildfire fund was tucked into the president’s $3.7 billion request for funding the immigration crises at the Southwest border.

While the wildfire money may be desperately needed, some are questioning the president’s tactic of asking for it in the same letter as the border-funding request, calling it “pork-barrel politics.”

The twin requests came in a letter from President Obama to Congress, in which he was expected to ask for funds to address the “urgent humanitarian situation on both sides of the Southwest border.”

Advocates who welcomed the proposal said it offers a more flexible management plan.

“The additional $615 million will allow for more fires to be suppressed than currently possible in the U.S. Forest Service budget,” said William Dougan, President of the National Federation of Federal Employees, in an email.

“This will also allow for land management agencies to go deeper into fire season without needing to use nonfire funds to pay for fire suppression as has happened too often in recent years,” his email said.

But the president’s proposal still had its skeptics, who would like to see a new law on the books for fire management. Witnesses at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, including senators, forestry and firefighting officials, said prevention has to be part of the government’s plan for dealing with wildfires.

“I’ve watched my home state burn every summer,” said Sen. John McCain (R- AZ).

“We lost 19 brave firefighters a year ago and over 20 percent of prime forest has been destroyed,” said Mc- Cain, adding that there is no higher priority than thinning forests to prevent the reach and intensity of wildfires.

McCain, along with Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and John Barrasso (R-WY) introduced the FLAME Act Amendments of 2014 (S. 2593) that would amend the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement, or FLAME Act, which set up a fund to cover the cost of fighting catastrophic fires in 2009. Besides easing the procedures to get firefighting funds, the bill would also direct the Forest Service to use a new wildfire budget forecast system and promote the use of private industry to help the service thin forests.

A similar bill was introduced in the House back in February by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID2) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR5). The bill, named the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014, has strong bipartisan co-sponsorship and support. It is considered far more likely to pass than the FLAME Act Amendments.

“The current system is broken and it severely hinders the ability of our land management agencies from being able to provide the resources needed to properly manage our forests,” said Schrader in a February announcement of the bill. “We must break this endless cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. By ensuring we have the annual funding that is necessary to properly manage our public lands, we can reduce fuel loads, improve forest health, and save money in the long run by preventing the catastrophic fires we see every year. This is good for our forests and good for the taxpayer.”

The House bill was the political descendant of an earlier Senate bill introduced in Dec. 2013 by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 had strong Democrat co-sponsorship, but effectively died in committee. It too sought to improve the funding and efficient use of funding for wildfire response. It, however, did not include the detail of funding preemptive activities as the more recent bills have.

Fire borrowing

Obama’s request, included with an emergency border funding request, dealt mostly with firefighting, but also asked for authority to respond to wildfires like any other natural disaster, to speed funding and stop the current cycle of “fire borrowing,” or tapping other budgets to pay for fire response.

Both McCain’s recent bill and the earlier House bill seek to end the practice of fire borrowing through appropriate funding for both fire-fighting and fire prevention. Those involved with the bills and the forests have argued that a proactive approach would help use the fire budget more efficiently.

“We spend way too much time and money on putting out burning trees instead of cutting them and putting them to good use,” said McCain.

“I have seen firsthand where good forest management practices, like removing hazardous fuels, have made the difference between a manageable fire and total devastation,” said Simpson when his and Schrader’s bill was introduced to the House. “It costs less, both in taxpayer dollars and in lost lives and property, to prevent wildfires before they start than to fight them once they are out of control.”

Tenney said he has seen “proof that forest treatment works,” saying thinned areas helped slow the recent San Juan Fire in Arizona. He said fire in thinned areas was “significantly reduced.”

“In untreated areas, (fire) spread was twice as fast, the flame lengths were 10 times as long and spotting was as much as a half-mile,” Tenney said. “Certain portions of the fire spread were entirely stopped because of forest thinning.”

The San Juan Fire burned 7,000 acres and cost $6.5 million to contain—or $932 an acre, Tenney said. But it would have cost just $128 per acre to study, prepare and sell the land for treatment, he said.

“Acres of treated forest are better than 7,000 acres of nothing,” Tenney told the committee.

“It’s crucial that our federal, state and local agencies have all the resources they need to fight fires and ultimately save lives, homes and property across Wyoming and the West,” said Sen. Barrasso.

“This bill aims to get ahead of the massive wildfire threat that plagues communities throughout the country by making fire suppression and proactive forest management priorities,” said Sen. Flake, speaking of the more recent bill, though much the same has been said about the House bill. “Enacting this measure would prohibit the crippling practice of fire borrowing, while responsibly budgeting for wildfire management at levels commensurate with the size of the problem.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor