Cantwell urges ‘strategic approach’ to investing in wildfire prevention at Senate hearing

By:  Jim Brunner
Source: Seattle Times

Stopping or slowing the annual march of catastrophic wildfires across the West will require reforms to the federal budget, smarter residential development and better management of public forestland, experts told a U.S. Senate panel in Seattle Thursday.

At a field hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, heard testimony from wildfire specialists and pledged bipartisan action to boost forest-thinning and controlled burns — and an end to the raiding of the U.S. Forest Service’s fire-prevention budget.

“We need a more strategic approach to investing in prevention. It will help pay for itself in the long run,” said Cantwell. She’s developing legislation that would halt “fire-borrowing,” which diverts money from prevention programs to cover firefighting costs, upgrade the Forest Service’s aging airtanker fleet and make other improvements to federal wildfire response.

“We simply cannot allow the status quo to continue,” said Barrasso, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on public lands. Barrasso pointed to “unnaturally overcrowded forests” in need of logging and said there needs to be a “paradigm shift” toward preventing fires instead of merely reacting to them.

Experts told the senators the U.S. has fallen badly behind on keeping forestlands healthy.

“Climate change and last century of fire policies have combined to leave our forests explosive,” said Michael Medler, chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Western Washington University, and a former wildfire fighter for the Forest Service.

About 400 million acres of forestland is in need of thinning and removal of branches and other fuels that stoke big blazes, Medler said, citing Forest Service statistics. That’s an area larger than Alaska.

But Medler said the Forest Service is treating only 2 million acres per year — not enough to stop the backlog of unhealthy thickets from growing even larger. Medler said a vast expansion of controlled burns is the only way to catch up.

“We can’t cut our way out of this,” he said.

Homebuilding that has crept further into wildland areas is another part of the problem. Such areas need to focus on becoming “disaster resilient,” said Nick Goulette, project director for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network.

That can include larger setbacks between houses and nearby forests, limiting new development or prescribing fire-resistant building materials and landscaping.

Peter Goldmark, Washington state commissioner of Public Lands, said policymakers ought to seize the moment given the threat posed by two years of record fires in Washington.

Besides boosting prevention money, Goldmark said there should be more funding available for early fire detection — through airplane flyovers, satellites or drones.

“The wildland fire environment is unlike anything we have ever faced,” said Goldmark. “Mega-fires are no longer the exception, but unfortunately they are becoming the rule.”