Wildfire Season in Full Swing

from Wildlife Promise

forest fire truck

Crews respond to the 21,000 acre Slide Fire outside Sedona, AZ, earlier this year. Flickr photo by USDA.

Wildfire season is in full swing and states across the West are starting to feel the burn. From the over 20,000 acre Mills Canyon fire in Washington to a wildfire in a remote Wilderness Area in the Sequoia National Forest in California, sparks are starting to fly.

These fires have a dramatic impact on wildlife and outdoor recreational enthusiasts. Fires led to campground closures in Wyoming and evacuations in California. Governors in Oregon and Washington declared states of emergency this week. As wildfire seasons become longer and more intense because of climate change, these impacts will become more common.

When wildfires break out, the U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and state forestry agencies spring into action. Fighting catastrophic fires takes major resources and these activities burn through agency budgets, leaving no choice but to cut other important programs. There are several competing proposals in Congress for how to fund wildfire suppression while making sure we can continue to restore and manage our forests.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act proposes a commonsense reform to fund the responses to the largest wildfires the same as other natural disasters, but some in Congress are using wildfires as an excuse to try and open extensive amounts of National Forests to massive increases in logging.

This Summer’s Wildfire Forecast

Wildfires have burned just over a million acres so far this year—actually a relatively small amount compared to the past decade’s average—but the National Interagency Fire Center projects an above-average risk for wildfires for much of the West throughout the rest of the summer and raised its National Preparedness Level just this week. Long-term drought results in an accumulation of dry forests that are tinderboxes waiting to go up in smoke. The most at-risk area includes California, a state that had its third largest wildfire ever just last year with the Rim Fire and is on pace for more burns.

Wildfire outlook for July. Source: National Interagency Fire Center.

Simmering Wildfire Legislation

Dealing with all of these wildfires takes a lot of money. In fact, roughly 40% of the US Forest Service Budget goes to wildfires, up from 13% in 1991.

The House of Representatives and Senate are considering a variety of bills to address funding for wildfires, and it can be hard to keep up with what they say and where they are in the legislative process. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee held a hearing this week to consider some of the different proposals, but here’s our update with some quick summaries.

wildfire at night

The over 20,000 acre Mills Canyon Fire burns in Washington, July 2014. Source: flickr, USDAgov

  • Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875/H.R. 3992) would allow the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to use funds from the federal “disaster fund” for the largest wildfires, just like other federal agencies already can. Funding for 99% of wildfires would still come from regular budgets, but the largest 1% of fires, which currently eat up 30% of agency funds, would be paid for like other natural disasters. Members in the House filed a “discharge petition” to bring the bill out of committee and to the floor, and in the Senate the legislation’s cosponsors have asked to attach this bill to anything that might move.
  • Emergency wildfire funding of $615 million, requested by the President last week, would plug the gap already in this summer’s wildfire budget. While not a long-term solution, this proactive approach would prevent the Forest Service from having to borrow from its other programs this summer, including from restoration work programs that actually lessen fires.
  • The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), created in 2009, brings together community organizations, environmental groups, the timber industry, and the U.S. Forest Service to develop and implement ecological restoration projects on National Forests that can benefit local economies. The Forest Service’s proposed budget asks to expand this popular program from $40 million a year to $60 million.

We Can’t Cut Our Way Out

In contrast, the Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act (H.R. 1526) and National Forest Jobs and Management Act (S. 1966) would circumvent public planning processes and require politically motivated minimum timber harvests instead. Under the guise of wildfire prevention, these bills seek to open up public lands to increased cutting without concern for the tradition of multiple use management of our National Forests. While well-planned thinning can help address challenges with overstocked fuel loads, mandating a minimum 7.5 million acre cut without allowing time for effective planning is simply sloppy management.

A new bill introduced last week tries to repackage this mandatory timber cut in the language of wildfire funding reform. It creates a complex system that would block wildfire suppression funds unless thresholds are met for thinning amounts, and creates an arbitration process that sidesteps judicial review. These provisions prioritize timber production over the other values of our National Forests and the long tradition of managing them for multiple uses including hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.

Please ask your Congressional representative to show their support for this commonsense approach to fighting catastrophic wildfires by becoming a cosponsor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

Take ActionCall the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask for your Congressional representative’s office.  Ask to speak to the member of the staff who works on environmental, agricultural or appropriations issues. Tell them you would like your representative to become a cosponsor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014.