USA Another severe fire season has come and gone. This past year, 60,000 fires scorched nearly 5.5 million acres, destroying 5,000 homes and buildings. Most tragically, we suffered the loss of 12 federal, state and local wildland firefighters. The continuing national trend is clear fire seasons are longer and wildfires burn bigger, hotter and faster.
As fires increase, so does the impact on the U.S. Forest Services budget. Responding to catastrophic fires demands a larger and larger percentage of the agencys financial resources. The costs of firefighting were once relatively stable and could be predicted. But drought, changes in climate, longer and hotter fire seasons, and the complexity of protecting more than 44 million homes in and around forest edges are sending costs skyward.
As the new Congress convenes, Americans at large especially those who have experienced the destruction and threats to safety, property and clean air and water firsthand are again looking to Congress to finally approve the bipartisan relief they came short of enacting last session.
The worst could be yet to come. Forest Service scientists forecast that the number of acres burned annually may more than double by 2050. In addition, we could see fires in regions where they were previously rare. Devastating fires in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and the Southeast last fall serve as calls to action.
No longer can the Forest Service cover the cost of firefighting and do all of the preventive forest restoration treatments that would help alleviate the problem in the first place. While natural wildfires once acted to clear out underbrush and maintain healthy forests, todays fires are different. Decades of extinguishing natural, lower-intensity fires and the effects of climate change have changed the way our forests burn, making fires more catastrophic to ecosystems, property and human life.
Our forests belong to all Americans, and we should all be alarmed that the agency we have asked to manage our forests is forced to operate with this fundamentally flawed structure. Congress now has another opportunity to act, and it must do so before the 2017 fire season.
We should treat fire like floods, hurricanes and other unpredictable natural disasters. In 2015, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act was introduced in the House and Senate and included in the presidents 2016 budget. The proposed legislation offered a responsible way to address the issue by creating a disaster fund that can cover firefighting costs for the most destructive fires, while investing in forest restoration such as thinning and using prescribed fire to reduce the threat of catastrophic fires.
Unfortunately, in both 2015 and 2016, Congress refused to enact this common-sense, bipartisan proposal, rejecting calls to invest in the tens of thousands of American jobs that rely on healthy forests.
Though my time as secretary of the Department of Agriculture is coming to an end, I implore members of the 115th Congress to recognize that this issue will not go away and to act now before more lives and homes are lost, and before the opportunity goes up in flames.