USA — With federal resources set aside for combating wildfires rapidly depleting, the federal government will soon be forced to divert funds that are currently reserved for wildfire prevention, like dry brush removal and controlled burns, making future extreme wildfires more likely.
On Friday, Congressman John Garamendi (D-Fairfield), the former deputy secretary of the U.S. Interior Department under President Bill Clinton, was joined by federal and state agencies combating wildfires and conservation groups at a press conference at a Cal Fire facility in Davis to sound the alarm and to urge immediate action to rectify this dangerous situation.
Over the last 12 years, the U.S. Forest Service has had to transfer $3.2 billion from other accounts to pay for active fire suppression. In 2013 alone, they had to transfer $505 million, and critical projects were cancelled as a result.
Federal depletion of funds directly impacts state-managed lands, as wildfires can quickly spread between jurisdictions.
This year, California has experienced 4,503 wildfires, burning nearly 700,000 acres of land.
On Friday, there were eight active fires in California, including the Saratoga Fire in Lake County, which is in Garamendi’s Third Congressional District.
The risk of wildfires is exacerbated by climate change and droughts, making the fire season last 60 to 80 days longer than it did in the 1980s
We find ourselves in a vicious cycle, Congressman Garamendi said. When we run out of money to fight wildfires, and that happens frequently, we dip into the very funds that help prevent wildfires. We ultimately spend a lot more money combating disasters than we would have if we prevented those disasters from ever occurring. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Theres bipartisan support to end this foolishness. All we need is an opportunity for a vote.
An emergency or reserve fund, similar to what California utilizes to address the extraordinary costs of wildland firefighting, is important so that emergency firefighting costs in federal responsibility areas do not impact the federal funds budgeted for forest health, vegetation management and fire prevention program activities, said Chief Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire director.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014
In July, Congressman Garamendi and 195 Democratic Members of Congress signed onto a discharge petition that would force consideration of H.R. 3992, the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014. If 218 voting Members of Congress sign a discharge petition, the bill is automatically brought to the House Floor for a vote.
H.R. 3992 has 60 Republican and 71 Democratic cosponsors and calls for a $2.7 billion fund each year for seven years to be set aside as a cash reserve that the Forest Service and Interior Department could turn to once their own firefighting allotments ran out.
The bill also treats the worst one percent of wildfires as natural disasters, like earthquakes or hurricanes, freeing up emergency resources for suppression to help prevent the need to raid fire prevention funds.
This legislation has been stalled in committee, with the Majority Leadership unwilling to bring it to a vote on the House floor.
The administrations solution
At the press conference, officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management underscored the importance of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy and the Presidents Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal to change how fire suppression costs are budgeted to treat extreme fire seasons the way other emergency disasters are treated.
We appreciate the opportunity to get together with our interagency cooperators and the Congressman to talk about the critical issue of wildfire in California and across the nation, said Jeanne Wade Evans, deputy regional forester at the U.S. Forest Service.
We are confronting a new chapter in wildland fire management, requiring a cooperative, integrated approach to restore and maintain healthy landscapes, prepare communities for fire season, and better address the nation’s wildland fire threat, said Jim Kenna, Bureau of Land Management California state director.
Concerns of conservationists
When wildfires are made more likely, homes and businesses are needlessly put at risk, natural habitats are pointlessly destroyed, wildlife is needlessly killed and displaced, air and water quality are harmed, and recreational opportunities in the wild are ruined.
We applaud Congressman Garamendi and his fellow congressional members on their efforts to address one of the biggest, most dangerous problems facing the West, said David Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association. We can no longer continue to chase forest fires. It is not sustainable for our forests, watersheds, air quality, and wildlife. Large wildfires have put unnatural stress on our ecosystems, but with proper funding future damage can be mitigated with preventive treatments.
Passing the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is one of the smartest actions members of Congress can take this year to help our national parks and federal public lands, said Neal Desai, Pacific Region field director of the National Parks Conservation Association. We thank Congressman Garamendi for his commitment to solving real problems facing our nations beloved national parks.
Research shows forest management restores the forests that support our lives and livelihoods. We need to invest in science-based restoration actions including selective thinning and controlled burning, said Ed Smith, forest ecologist for The Nature Conservancy of California. This proactive restoration work is much safer and less costly than fighting fires reactively, and saves lives and property and benefits nature.