Fighting fire danger with western can-do spirit

Fighting fire danger with western can-do spirit

19 December 2013

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USA — Gov. Matt Mead started a fire of his own in announcing that Western states should take on more of the burden of dealing with the growing threat from forest fires.

We applaud his Western can-do spirit in saying that states will do for themselves what the federal government cannot. As the U.S. Forest Service faces budget cuts to its fire suppression budget, Western states will step up and put money into fire prevention.

Mead’s reasoning was that the federal budget is tight, and preventing fires within their borders is an urgent matter to states.

“This is not just a federal issue,” said Mead at the Western Governors’ Association conference. “It’s a state issue, and the states need to be involved heavily in it, not just in policy but in terms of financial support.”

Federal officials seemed caught off guard by the offer from states, according to The Associated Press. We imagine they couldn’t believe their ears.

Who can blame them?

It’s rare in public life to see someone offering to pay instead of asking for help.

It calls to mind President John Kennedy’s appeal to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

The Western governors are offering to do something very important for themselves. Recent fires have made huge demands on state budgets.

Wyoming’s worst fire season, 2012, cost the state $42.5 million in firefighting costs. The federal government paid another $68 million.

So when Western governors saw that sequestration this year removed $115 million from the U.S. Forest Service budget for fighting wildfires, they feared for their forests and their state budgets.

When the Yosemite National Park fire raged in August, the U.S. Forest Service was down to $50 million in its budget for wildfire suppression. More than $1 billion had been spent by then fighting Western fires, including those in Wyoming, according to Yosemite alone cost $89 million to control. And then there were millions spent repairing the damage.

The U.S. Forest Service got creative at that point, “fire borrowing” by shifting money away from rangeland research and other programs to fight fires.

Against this backdrop, no wonder the governors who were meeting earlier this month were looking ahead to next year’s fire season and realizing they have to get aggressive.

Mead pushed for the states to pay for prevention, something that is falling by the wayside as the federal government concentrates on putting out flames.

The governor rightly said that preventing those flames is a necessary task. It can include logging, more seeding and tree planting.

If the federal government can’t do it, the states will, is the message that came out of the Western Governor’s conference.

Mead, and Wyoming, showed some of that spirit of cooperation among individual states in the summer when about 15 firefighters from various Wyoming agencies plus a National Guard crew and helicopter went to Colorado to fight the Black Forest Fire and other fires. A strike team of Wyoming firefighters also went to New Mexico in the summer fire season.

The choice to step up to pay costs is a matter of priority. Those worried about the state refusing Medicaid expansion would argue that the willingness to invest locally can be selective.

Selective or not, this is a worthy investment for Wyoming. It costs money to fight fires; it may save money in the long run to invest in prevention.

For that kind of common sense, we applaud Gov. Mead and the Western governors for seeing a need and looking to themselves for part of the solution.

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