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Legislation needed to reform funding for wildfire suppression

Natural disasters can occur at any given time and in any given area. The size, duration and damages are usually unpredictable. The devastation, destruction and cost of California wildfires are increasing annually.

In 2017, more than 1,500 wildfires burned over 640,000 acres on National Forest System lands in California, including the Thomas Fire, which is now the largest in California history. Although the fire is fully contained, the surrounding communities are presently dealing with debris flows caused by a now charred and barren landscape that no longer has the protection of trees, grass and other vegetation for a stable ground. To date, 20 people have died, several others are still missing, and more than 100 homes have been destroyed as a result of these mudslides.

Additionally, in early October, a series of wind-driven wildfires burned more than 200,000 acres across Northern California. The fires destroyed thousands of structures and killed 44 people. Although the fires did not occur on Forest Service lands, the agency worked closely with state and local cooperators on fire suppression efforts.

The Pacific Southwest Region has spent over $500 million preventing or suppressing wildfires over the last year. Funding for suppression efforts performed by the Forest Service comes from the overall agency’s budget based on a 10-year rolling average — a model that is simply unsustainable, given the last several years of unprecedented fire seasons. When wildfire suppression funding is insufficient, the Forest Service is forced to shift money away from other investments designed to build healthy, resilient forests and communities. We must find a permanent solution that restores the balance between fire prevention, fire suppression and resource restoration.

As mentioned above, many residents in California have suffered significant harm and loss from recent fires and mudslides. We see and empathize with those affected, and are working to reduce the potential for future loss by performing hazardous fuel reduction treatments. In Fiscal Year 2017 alone, we performed fuels reduction treatments on over 310,000 acres of Forest Service lands across the state, but there is more to be done. To date, 80 million acres of National Forest System lands are currently at moderate to high risk of insects, disease or fire. Of these, 10 million acres are located in California.

Essentially, the more acres we treat, the healthier our forests become, contributing to safer and more resilient communities. The science, data and monitoring shows that hazardous fuel treatments and thinning positively affects fire behavior and lowers the catastrophic risk of fire damage. A fire-funding fix will allow the USDA Forest Service to invest more in this critical work.

We are appreciative of the ongoing work of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue and Congress who have acknowledged the funding issue and are working hard to help resolve these challenges.

Fortunately, there is bipartisan support from key leaders in Congress toward legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is currently funded. Finding a permanent solution to fix the fire-funding problem will go a long way in sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of our Nation’s forests and grasslands for current and future generations.

7 thoughts on “Legislation needed to reform funding for wildfire suppression

  • Sounds all well and good. A question; Wouldn’t a 10 year rolling average result in a large amount of money in the Wildfire Suppression Fund given the extent of recent fire seasons? That’s actually just a side note to what I want to express. Mechanical and hand fuel treatments are somewhat effective on a small scale, more so when followed up with understory burning. People living adjacent to FS managed lands usually (not always) agree with this, especially when given a real world example such as the Minerva fire. Landscape scale prescribed fire is needed and not used enough. Public resistance certainly bears part of the blame. Burn under planned conditions and have an intact timber stand, or a moonscape during summertime conditions?

  • I’d feel better if our fire managers got a better handle on their burns. I give two examples, both burns were conducted in the last year or two and anybody can go look to see what I’m talking about.

    An area just west of Massack Creek was burned and I’d bet 80% of the ground fuel still remains making one wonder why they even bothered. Then, near Thomas Creek, their fires burned very hot with nearly 100% killing of the over story. There are now several very large patches of tall standing dead trees as a result. I think they would have had a better looking end result had that area simply been clear cut logged.

    It’s easy to see where some of the public resistance comes from. Seriously, are our fire managers getting the results they…

  • The results they desire?

    • Results vary as you pointed out. I’m also not opposed to logging/thinning. During my many years (as my chosen moniker states) of seeing large tracts of timber burned by high intensity summertime wildfires it was an easy conclusion that conversion to snags and brush on a large scale is not natural. The Plumas has plenty of examples of this, also easily viewed. Mechanical and hand treatments are slow and expensive but have a place. We use wood products so they should be harvested. Public perception, what would you like our timber stands to look like after fire moves through during the summer dry season? Waiting to treat every acre with logging/thinning will never catch up. The woods are flammable and one way or another will catch fire.

  • What I would like to see is a sound burn or no burn decision process. Yes results will always vary but why are we constantly dealing with the two end extremes? No doubt a great deal of prep work goes into a controlled burn but obviously, if the fire managers are not obtaining the desired result why don’t they stop their effort and come back when conditions are more favorable to project success? As it looks to me the burn/no burn process on the Plumas NF. is badly flawed.

    Like I say, go up and have a look around Thomas Creek. A wildfire could not have made it look worse. As for public perception one only needs to open their eyes and look at the results. Perhaps we simply lack qualified people or sound policy to do the job right?

  • Thomas Creek isn’t ringing any bells but I’ll take your word for it that what you observed was excessive mortality. You could express that to a fuels person at the headquarters office in Quincy, you’d be listened to is my guess. I suggest constructive rather than confrontational input. To say that it is a “constant” problem of burn decision would require visiting all, or at least many burn sites over multiple years. More policy is not the answer, those things exist. The human element does occasionally result in too much heat, I’ll give you that. The local FS does have very competent people (no I’m not a current employee). My main point really is they should be encouraged, by the public, to ramp up the Rx fire program. Characters…

  • Yes, I am all in favor of more controlled burns. Fuel management is essential in our forests. Back in the day when the logging industry was thriving wildfires of magnitude we see now were darn rare. Due to years of neglect forest fuel loading has reached critical levels. It’s sad as these are our public lands, not Forest Service lands as they are inclined to lead you to believe. My wish is that they changed directions and started to become good stewards of our forests. I know for fact it can be done.

    While I can’t match your 37 years I also have many of years with the Forest Service including seven with the Eldorado IHC. Great career until I became a mom and then shifted into nursing. Be that as it may I remain very aware.

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