WASHINGTON, USA — The skyrocketing federal cost of preventing and fightingwildfires won’t drop until state and local governments and the insuranceindustry work to stem the number of new homes built near wild lands, lawmakersand officials said Tuesday at a Senate hearing.
Federal agencies responsible for fire suppression also came under criticism atthe Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing for failing to make neededchanges over the past seven years to improve management of wildfires.
In response, the agencies outlined new cost-containment steps they will takethis fire season, including putting fire crews and helicopters under morefederal control.
The federal government spent $1.9 billion on fire suppression in 2006, the worstwildfire year on record, officials said. Nearly 10 million acres burned.
Senators of both parties said that with the ever-increasing costs of fightingwildfires, the Forest Service does not have money for its other priorities.
Lawmakers and witnesses cited two factors adding to the growing wildfire threat.One main cause is the increasing number of new homes being built on border areasknown as the “wildland urban interface,” or WUI, particularly in theintermountain West.
About 8.4 million new homes, or 60 percent of new homes, were built in the WUIin the 1990s, officials said.
“Federal fire suppression costs will not go down, they will continue torise, unless something is done to regulate development in the WUI,” saidAgriculture Department Inspector General Phyllis Fong. “We have to somehowincentivize state and local governments to regulate development.”
Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey noted that the growth of such housing hasnot been a federal responsibility and that little has been done about it. Hesaid state and local governments will have to work to slow that growth.
But he also compared today’s wildfire planning to where the country was on floodplanning 15 or 20 years ago. He suggested that the federal government couldprovide incentives to the insurance industry to look more closely at fire-proneareas as they have done with flood-prone areas.
The insurance industry, in turn, could provide incentives for homeowners toincorporate more fire-prevention features or not to build in border areas, headded.
Another factor in the increasing wildfire threat is the over-accumulation ofdead vegetation that can fuel fires. The increase in such hazardous fuels stemsfrom extended drought, widespread disease and insect infestations and the pastaversion to the natural use of wildland fire, Fong said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., asked whether the Healthy Forests Initiative hadworked to reduce such fuels. The number of acres needing treatment is actuallygrowing three times faster than the acres treated, responded Robin Nazzaro ofthe Government Accountability Office.
A report released Tuesday said the GAO has recommended a number of actions overthe past seven years that the agencies should have taken to improve theirmanagement of wildland fires.
The agencies “concurred with GAO’s recommendations but have not completed,or in some cases have not yet begun, needed actions,” the report said.
Additional actions needed, according to the report, include developing acohesive strategy identifying options and funding to reduce fuels and addressfire problems, clarifying their guidance for sharing fire suppression costs withnonfederal entities, and establishing clear goals, strategies and performancemeasures to help contain costs.
Rey said he disagreed over the cohesive fuel strategy criticism, saying thedepartment issued one last April.
“As I understand it, GAO is not satisfied with that strategy because itdoesn’t provide multiyear funding assessments for fuels treatment priorities,”Rey said. “We respectfully disagree with the utility of those kinds ofmultiyear funding estimates because conditions on the ground change prioritiesas years play out.”
The government has reduced hazardous fuels on 20 million acres since 2001 and isencouraged at its overall progress, said Nina Rose Hatfield, Interior deputyassistant secretary.
Rey announced new cost-containment measures that will be put in place for the2007 fire season and beyond. They include a draft guidebook with a strategy formanaging fires in relation to the risk they pose to property or communities; anindividual chosen by the Forest Service chief to oversee fires of nationalsignificance; and improved cost management of helicopters.
Also, smoke jumpers, hot shot crews and helicopters will be treated as”national assets” and moved to areas and incidents through morecentralized management, Rey said.
After the hearing, Rey said that change may make some governors nervous.
“It’s going to be a politically sensitive issue,” he said.
He also criticized lawmakers for their role in cost containment problems. Hesaid they tell him in January that cost containment is an important priority,but it becomes less so in August when fires are burning.
“The greatest inconsistency that I see in the fire program is the advice Iget from elected officials while the fires are burning as compared to the adviceI get after the money has been spent to put them out,” Rey said. “Andthat’s elected officials at all levels of government.”