Feds urged to fund wildfire prevention

Feds urged to fund wildfire prevention

05 June 2013

published by www.statesmanjournal.com

USA — WASHINGTON — The Obama administration should spend more money on preventing forest fires before they start, senators said Tuesday.

Doing that before wildfire season gets underway — summer marks the peak — has become critical because the blazes are getting numerous and destructive, lawmakers and witnesses said during a Senate Energy and Natural Committee hearing.

The panel’s chairman, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, blasted what he called a “baffling” decision by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to slash funding for fire prevention programs in President Barack Obama’s 2014 spending request to Congress.

“They have repeatedly questioned the justification for prevention and I’m committed to getting to the bottom of this. This has got to stop,” Wyden said.

The Obama administration said fire prevention has taken a back seat because of the fiscal climate. Spending limited resources to fight fires and hire enough people and equipment for the job is the top priority, officials said.

National Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said firefighting costs are exploding as more people move into or near wilderness.

Fire suppression eats up more than half the Forest Service’s budget as the government battles record fires, which consumed more than 9.3 million acres in 2012. The Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has used money meant for fire prevention and tapped into a congressionally established reserve account meant for large and complex blazes, Tidwell said.

Anywhere from 65 million to 82 million acres of national forests need thinning and other preventive measures, according to Tidwell’s written testimony. That’s not counting acreage owned by the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the U.S. Department of Interior.

In next year’s budget request, the White House seeks $776.9 million for the Interior Department’s fire program. Of that, $95.9 million is for fire prevention — a cut of $88.9 million from 2012 and $49.4 million from this year.

“With today’s fiscal climate, and competition for limited resources, we are being asked to make tough choices. The reduction … is one of those choices,” Kim Thorsen, a deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, said in her written testimony.

Lynn Jungwirth, a senior fellow at The Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, Calif., said Uncle Sam is too focused on putting out fires and does too little to help wilderness communities like hers prepare for them. Hayfork, near Eureka, is surrounded by the Trinity National Forest.

“Our federal government funds (fire) suppression to the detriment of everything else,” Jungwirth said, urging Congress to increase funding for outreach efforts to help local residents better prepare for the fire season and fight blazes when they are sparked.

Doug Decker, Oregon’s state forester, said policy disagreements also complicate joint firefighting efforts by state and federal officials.

Federal officials will allow some fires to burn unchecked because studies show that can eliminate excess and unwanted vegetation and benefit the forest ecosystem.

But when those fires approach private lands, “natural tension” arises between state and federal officials as they try to work out how to proceed, Decker said.

Oregon’s top priority is to put out the fires well before they become a major threat to humans or property because that’s what the property owners pay the state to do. But federal officials may let the fire burn until it becomes a real threat.

Though policy arguments may sound esoteric, “when … you’re a private landowner and there’s fire that’s coming down the hill off a national forest that’s going to affect your property, that’s a very real topic,” Decker said after the hearing.

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