Faced with longer, drier and more dangerous fire seasons that will inevitably be caused by global warming, a forest expert today told a House committee that the U.S. must provide greater support for policies that enable communities to better plan and implement local protection strategies. Solutions range from forest thinning to increased funding for key fire protection programs.
“There is no question that global warming is heating up the forests and sparking more fires,” Wilderness Society National Forest Program Director Michael Francis said to the House Select Energy Independence and Global Warming Committee, charged with examining the relationship between wildfires and climate change. “Fire management is often perceived to be a federal issue, but fires do not respect jurisdictional lines on a map. To make saving homes and lives truly the top priority, we need policies that get federal money to local communities so that they can play a role in their own defense. Let’s empower those communities to enact collaborative protection strategies in their own back yards.”
Francis pointed to one existing program that deserves greater funding: The State Fire Assistance (SFA) is the primary federal program that can help communities achieve these goals. It provides cost-sharing funds to help states and communities prepare for and respond to wildland fires, including purchasing equipment and providing firefighter training. The funding is also used to support Community Wildland Fire Protection Planning (CWPP) and hazardous fuels reduction (reducing dense vegetation build-up) near communities.
In recent years, SFA has been the subject of recurring proposed cuts, according to Francis. The Bush administration proposed a 30-percent reduction for 2007 and a 14-percent cut for 2008. Those cuts are compounded by the fact that federal funding dedicated to those programs that foster non-federal partnerships in forest and fire management amounted to less than 10 percent of the $14 billion appropriated to the National Fire Plan in the last five years. State foresters estimate that funding for SFA needs to increase by nearly 85 percent — to $145 million — in order to meet current and emerging needs. (See pdf on wildland fire budget overview at http://www.wilderness.org/Library/Documents/upload/BudgetOverview-NewDirection WildfireMgt.pdf)
Problems associated with global warming and the increasing number of citizens moving to fire-prone areas make immediate action even more critical, Francis added. Global warming will raise temperatures 1-4 degrees over the next century, while 8 million new homes are expected to be built in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) by 2010.
Enacting better fire policies will also give Mother Nature and the federal budget a hand.
“Wildland fire is as natural and necessary as sunshine or rain to a healthy forest,” Francis said. “Nature uses fire to transform dead and dying material into nutrients, to control insect populations, and to provide living conditions for wildlife. Burned trees provide critical habitat for many animals and the slow decay of burned trees provides nutrients essential to rejuvenating growth.”
Increased population in the WUI, meanwhile, has contributed to skyrocketing suppression costs that have totaled over $1 billion in four of the last seven years. Communities that are “firesafe”, or well-prepared for wildland fire, are key to protecting people’s homes – and ultimately restoring functional, and fire-resilient, wildlands.