New Council to Coordinate Federal Response to Increasing Wildfire Risks

New Council to Coordinate Federal Response to Increasing Wildfire Risks

06 July 2011

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South Africa — President Barack Obama issued a major disaster declaration for the state of Texas Friday to provide federal funding for the state’s wildfire recovery efforts.
The declaration follows a trend of increased federal attention to wildfires in recent years. The Wildland Fire Executive Council also met Friday to discuss ways to improve communication with its regional branches.

Established in February by the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, the Wildland Fire Executive Council is creating the national strategic plan called for by Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act of 2009. The law was ennacted due to congressional recognition of the increased risks wildland fires have posed over the last two decades.

“It’s been quite an effort from coast to coast,” Tom Harbour, Wildland Fire Executive Council chair, said of the new subcommittee’s work.

To better address areas’s varied fire risks, the council created three regional branches to serve the northeast, southeast and western portions of the country. Outreach efforts include renovating its website. Local officials, American Indian tribe leaders, forest rangers and fire chiefs are among those who work with the regional committees.

“We’re organized to reach out to people who are directly involved with the management of wildland fires,” Kirk Rowdabaugh, director of the Office of Wildland Fire Coordination, said.

Since December, in Texas alone, more than 3 million acres of land have been scorched by fires, causing more than $140 million in damage. Wild fires have been increasing in severity for several ecological and demographic reasons, Rowdabaugh said in an interview. Decades of highly efficient fire suppression efforts disrupted natural fire cycles, allowing dead dry biomass to accumulate and fuel massive blazes.

“If you’re used to having the garbage picked up every Monday and you skipped 20 weeks, would you have a lot of garbage built up? Yes,” Rowdabaugh said.

Rowdabaugh also cited climate change, non-native plant introduction and home construction in former forests and deserts as wildland fire instigators.

“A lot of the large-scale management is precluded because the landscape is fractured,” he said.

All of these factors have increased the number of acres that burn each year and expanded the burning seasons of several states, straining fire suppression resources.

The Wildland Fire Executive Council will attempt to tackle these challenges over the next year as it composes a policy recommendation plan to present to Congress.

“America’s fire environment has changed very quickly,” Rowdabaugh said. “We’re not going to make the same old mistakes. We’re doing a better job protecting communities.”

Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, both R-Texas, said the disaster declaration was welcome news, although they criticized the president for taking too long to make the decision.

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