USA — Many problems grow from government neglect or ineptitude. Not so on the federally managed forests that envelop Warm Lake, Yellow Pine and other pristine Western communities.
Government firefighting efforts have proven both aggressive and effective. We know how to put out forest fires. The cure has worked. The side effects are painfully evident.
On innumerable hillsides and in countless ravines, forests are thicker and more flammable than they should be. We have fought fires so tirelessly and so well that natural fire has been largely eliminated from the landscape, allowing vegetation to grow unchecked. The condition of the forests is now, as much as anything, a political challenge.
Our elected officials need to change the way they fund the Forest Service. Then they need to change the way they react to fire. This requires the resolve to withstand fiscal pressure. If it were easy, it wouldn’t demand leadership.
Since 2001, spending on programs to help fireproof communities has dropped more than 30 percent. For every dollar the federal government spends preventing fires, it spends about 23 dollars putting them out. Like the volatile “crown fires” that blaze through the canopies of lush forest, firefighting burns through nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget.
Short-changing prevention is unwise and inexcusable. This is our government’s great tactical error in the war on wildfire. Unless there’s a change, this miscalculation will condemn taxpayers to pick up the bills for costlier and more dangerous fire suppression efforts, summer after smoky summer.
And the irony is that federal agencies know how to protect homes and communities from fire, just like they know how to knock down wildfire. They know “firewise” programs, clearing vegetation around homes and communities, create effective fire buffers.
The impulse is to blanket the hills with firefighters, at whatever cost.
We’ve allowed a public service spokesman, Smokey Bear, to guide policy by portraying natural fire as an ugly adversary. When homeowners are understandably terrified when fire hits close to home, Smokey’s oversimplification is underscored.
This quickly feeds the impulse to fight all fires, not just the fires that demand action because they threaten lives and property. Firefighting becomes a popular default, author and fire authority Stephen Pyne said during the Statesman’s recent three-part “Fire Wise?” series, because it gives the appearance of doing something.
Politicians, of course, are always concerned about appearances. This makes firefighting the kind of rare cause that can even manage to unite the likes of Reps. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, and Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Recently, this odd ideological combination testified in favor of a House-passed bill to create a federal fund for firefighting.
Normally, bipartisanship is something to cheer. In this case, though, it’s a symptom of troubling group think. Considering the way firefighting eats into budgets for other federal programs – including prevention – Congress is setting up the wrong dedicated fund. Instead, Congress should establish a fund exclusively for firewise programs. And right away.
Failing to do so invites crisis – one caused by political neglect.
“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.