In Senate Hearing, Cantwell Calls for Increased Resources for Fire Prevention
Senator announces support for disaster fund for large wildfires
WASHINGTON, D.C. – During a U.S. Senate committee hearing on federal wildfire preparedness, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said today she supports changing federal policy to treat the nation’s largest wildfires similar to natural disasters to increase resources available for fire prevention and forest management.
Cantwell announced her support for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 (S. 1875) – introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) – which would establish a disaster fund for catastrophic wildfires and free up resources that could be used toward fire prevention. Cantwell’s remarks came during a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing to discuss federal wildfire preparedness and the U.S. Forest Service’s 2015 budget request.
More than 1,000 firefighters in Washington state continue battling the Mills Canyon fire, which had burned 22,000 acres in the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest and threatened homes two miles southwest of Entiat. Wildfire risk levels remain high in most of Eastern and Central Washington.
“We have several fires now, including the Mills Canyon fire. Like so many of my colleagues from Western states – we keep seeing this movie over and over again,” Cantwell said. “It wasn’t that long ago that we had the Thirty-Mile Fire in our state where we lost several lives, and really understanding what is happening and the current threat level is very important.”
A topic during Tuesday’s hearing was “fire borrowing” – a term for when federal agencies such as the Forest Service and the Interior Department are forced to steer money from fire prevention and land management programs to cover expenses from fighting wildfires on federal lands. As fire seasons have worsened over the years, the agencies have frequently exceeded firefighting appropriations. In 2013, the Forest Service exceeded its firefighting budget by $616 million.
The agencies currently base their annual wildfire budgets on a rolling 10-year average, which has required additional funding in eight of the last 10 years.
Cantwell supports the proposed fire bill, which would remove any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to 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.
Federal officials estimate that one percent of wildfires consume about 30 percent of firefighting budgets.
In response to Cantwell, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell said the agency is exploring the use of unmanned drones to help determine the magnitude of wildfires to better protect firefighters. Tidwell said the agency is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to move forward, and he pointed to last year’s Rim Fire in California’s Sierra Nevada, where a National Guard drone was used to help keep see hot spots from above.
“It’s no question that it is a tool we need to begin using, and we are going to continue to work on that to find the right way to move forward with it so that it can provide better information to our firefighters,” said Tidwell, one of several witnesses to appear before the committee.
Cantwell also asked Tidwell whether the Forest Service could make better use of stewardship contracting programs in which the costs of thinning and fuel reduction is offset by the value of the timber removed.
Below is a transcript of Cantwell’s discussion with Chief Tidwell:
Senator Cantwell: “This is a map of Washington state, and you can see by the yellow and red, almost half of our geographic area is either in high, or very high areas, so we have several fires now – including the Mills Canyon fire – and there is an interagency management team helping, so we greatly appreciate that.
“But, I think – like so many of my colleagues from western states- we keep seeing this movie over and over again. And yes, we are going to see a certain amount right now. The lightning threat does concern us a lot in these areas.
“But it goes to the basic question of -- instead of stealing from other resources every year, isn’t there a – and I know the Wyden bill, which I support – a management system where we can do some fuel reductions as part of a biomass program, and then use those generated dollars to then do the urban interface work we want to do.
“Don’t those things go hand-in-hand?
“And if you could – in the interest of time – comment about your potential use or current use of drones in helping us identify the magnitude of wildfires? It wasn’t that long ago that we had the Thirty-Mile Fire in our state where we lost several lives, and really understanding what is happening and the current threat level is very important, so if you could comment on that.”
Chief Tidwell: “Well Senator, for your first question, our stewardship contracting is probably our best approach to be able to look at all the work that needs to be done on the landscape, and then to be able to use the value of the biomass –the timber that needs to be removed – to offset some of the other restoration work. That is something we are continuing to expand. Now close to 30% of our work is being done with stewardship contracting.
“The question on drones is one of the things we are looking into, to actually use those aircraft to be able to provide better intelligence. Last year on the Rim Fire in California, through the state and the Department of Defense, we were able to fly a Defense plane that actually helped us pick up some spots that were outside the line, earlier than we would have picked it up with our infrared flight.
“So it’s no question that it is a tool we need to begin using, and we are going to continue to work on that to find the right way to move forward with it so that it can provide better information to our firefighters.”
Cantwell: “Do you need anything else from FAA on that to move forward?
Tidwell: “We are working with the FAA right now, and if we need anything else, I will let you know.”
Cantwell: “Thank you.”
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