In Hearing, Cantwell Secures Forest Service Commitment to Wildfire Restoration in WA

Senator applauds Forest Service’s budget request for wildfire disaster fund and forest management


 WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) thanked U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell for his agency’s 2016 budget request and its approach to preventing and fighting wildfires. During the hearing, Cantwell secured Tidwell’s commitment to continue restoration work in the aftermath of the Cartlon Complex fire that burned more than 250,000 acres in north-central Washington state in 2014.

The budget calls for a provision cosponsored by Cantwell that would establish a federal disaster fund for the most severe wildfires and reserve more resources for fire prevention and forest management. Cantwell also applauded the proposed budget for assistance to private landowners in taking steps to reduce fire risks on their properties.

“The health and vibrancy of America’s national forests are of particular interest to the people of Washington state,” said Cantwell, ranking member on the committee, during the hearing. “And I believe the President’s budget is a strong proposal that will enable the Forest Service to fulfill its motto of ‘caring for the land serving the people.”

Cantwell also commended the Forest Service budget request for its investment in recreation and fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund. 

“Six-thousand acres of open space are lost each year to development,” Cantwell said. “That’s about four acres per minute. So the Forest Service’s land and water conservation investment would permanently protect working forest lands and help to maintain our rural jobs.”

In 2014, wildfires burned more than 360,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Washington state during one of the state’s worst fire seasons. In July, the Carlton Complex fire burned 156,000 acres in one day alone – and moved at five acres per second during its peak.

During the hearing, Cantwell asked Tidwell how the Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture planned to move forward with flood prevention and restoration in the aftermath of the Carlton Complex fire.

“I definitely want your help and support in the community in preventing the amounts of ash that are there from causing flooding in the area,” Cantwell said.

“We are going to continue restoration work on the Cartlon burn,” Tidwell said. “We did work last year and we’ll continue to do more work here to stabilize some key areas, to reforest and replant some areas. And to also continue to do some additional road work to stabilize that. We are semi-fortunate that we have a pretty shallow snowpack so we may not be subject to as much flooding as we could have been. I say that with some benefits and not with that because it sets us up for a potentially dry year.”

Cantwell cosponsored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID).  The budget endorses provisions from the bill that would make any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average eligible to be covered by a disaster funding account separate from Forest Service and Interior budgets – similar to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency addresses major disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

As fire seasons have worsened over the years, agencies battling fires on federal lands have frequently exceeded their firefighting budgets. When that happens, agencies such as the Forest Service and the Interior Department are forced to steer money from fire prevention and land management programs to cover the extra firefighting expenses.

Federal officials estimate that one percent of wildfires consume about 30 percent of firefighting budgets. The agencies currently base their annual wildfire budgets on a rolling 10-year average but their budgets have not covered actual fire suppression costs in six of the last 10 years.