BILL IN CONGRESS WOULD LET FEDERAL DISASTER FUNDS BE USED TO FIGHT CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRES

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By Miriam Raftery

June 21, 2014 (Washington D.C.) – The U.S. Forest Service warns that this year could bring a catastrophic fire season in the Southwest with estimated that firefighting costs of $1.8 billion this year for the Interior Department overall – that’s nearly triple the amount of money available to fight fires.

A bipartisan coalition of western Senators and Representatives from Oregon and Idaho  have introduced legislation in Congress that would allow the Forest Service to use money from federal disaster funds to fight fires, if firefighting costs reach 70 percent of their 10-year average. President Barack Obama has reportedly indicated he supports this legislation.

Ironically, the devastating 2003 firestorms in California could have been prevented, if President George W. Bush would have heeded the pleas of Governor Gray Davis and a bipartisan coalition of local officials, who warned of tinder-dry conditions due to bark beetle infestation in our local forests. For months, they pleaded for help. Governor Davis issued an emergency request asking President Bush to authorize emergency funds through FEMA to clear the dead trees and prevent a serious wildfire. 

The Bush administration’s ultimate refusal came just hours before the devastating Cedar Fire started on forest lands east of Lakeside – a firestorm that still stands as the worst in California history in acreage burned, homes destroyed and lives lost.

Devastating wildfires have become the “new reality in the Western United States,” but it doesn’t have to be that way, according to an editorial in the New York Times titled “Paying for the forest next time.”  It was written by Dan Glickman, former Secretary of Agriculture under President Bush and Harris Sherman, former Under Secretary overseeing the Forest Service under President Obama.

The problem is that money usually set aside to cover things that prevent forest fires and assure healthy forests – such as clearing brush and dead trees, as well as controlled burns, have been used instead for firefighting.  This creates a vicious cycle of more and more severe fires.  Drought, diseases such as bark beetle infestations, dense underbrush and a longer fire season resulting from hotter, drier weather have all made the situation even worse. Plus flooding and mudslides can occur when vegetation is burned away.

These megafires have not only destroyed millions of acres in recent years—double the levels in the recent past.  They also threaten the nation’s electric power grid, water supplies, recreational lands and our water supply – as well as homes and businesses.  Moreover, almost 40 percent of new development in the West is in areas at risk of wildland fires – or what the New York Times editorial by former federal officials call a “risky pattern.”

Glickman and Sherman say that diverting emergency funds to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the west is a “sensible solution” to prevent forests and neighboring communities from burning down.  They also call on Congress to go farther than the current bill to allocate more funds to restore our forests at an accelerated pace. Calling our forests “national treasures that provide enormous benefits to society,” the former federal forestry and agriculture officials concluded, “If we don’t act, we will continue to suffer from megafire disasters.”