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Senators say wildfire prevention system needs ‘bold reforms’

Tue., Aug. 20, 2013, 2:56 p.m.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, center, speaks at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday; at left is Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, at right, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch. (Betsy Russell)
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, center, speaks at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise on Tuesday; at left is Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, at right, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho’s two GOP senators joined with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden on Tuesday to launch a new bipartisan push to use the fall budget negotiations in Congress to reform the way the nation funds wildfire prevention, saying “bold reforms” are needed.

“In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden declared in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That’s because it taps fire prevention funds to fight raging fires, landing the nation in a vicious circle as it does less prevention, he said.

“And I say that given the heroic efforts that have been made by our firefighters,” Wyden said. “The reality is simple: For western members of Congress in the House and the Senate, there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this broken system.”

The three senators said there’s “no better time to bring about these changes than this fall,” in Wyden’s words, as Congress grapples with the budget sequester, the need to raise the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year. “This brings front and center the debate about what our priorities are and what our choices are,” he said. “Democrats and Republicans from the West want to work with the administration to use this unique time in the budget debate that’s coming up here in just a few weeks.”

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on which Risch also serves; Crapo and Wyden both serve on the budget committee. Wyden quipped that 3 percent of the U.S. Senate is already on board with the new push – the three of them – and said they’ve also gotten enthusiastic support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been working to make sure the Forest Service is first in line for seven tanker planes that should become available from the military this month to boost firefighting efforts.

Said Wyden, “I talked to Sen. McCain after the horrible tragedy in Arizona, and he made it clear he is going to work very closely with senators who want to pursue these bipartisan approaches. His stature, particularly with respect to the military, really is an enormous benefit to us. … When military folks hear something is important to Sen. McCain, it tends to get a fair amount of traction.”

The three senators’ announcement came the same day that top federal and state fire managers pushed the nation’s fire preparedness level to its highest level, PL-5, a first since 2008 and a level that’s been hit only five times in the past 10 years. That level allows requests for additional military and even international resources.

The senators expressed gratitude to all involved in the ongoing fight against wildfires, “particularly those who are on the ground in harm’s way,” Crapo said. “We give our thanks for their incredible efforts that they are undertaking on our behalf.”

The nation’s wildfires have changed in the past 25 years, with invasive species, noxious weeds, dry conditions, fuel buildup and increased development altering fire behavior to the point that fires are burning bigger and hotter and threatening more developed areas. Fire seasons now start earlier and end later, with the result that it’s always fire season somewhere in the nation – with no more seasonal respite for the nation’s firefighters.

NIFC officials said up to 17 million houses have been built in the wildland-urban interface in just the last 12 years. “It’s changing our entire landscape and it’s going to change how we fight fires in the future,” said Dick Bahr, fire science and ecology program leader for the National Park Service. “We don’t have those broad landscapes where fires could burn before without impacting humans.”

Risch said, “Look, we don’t have to have a fire in order to remove the fuel. … If you remove the fuel load ahead of time, the fire is going to be less intense, it’s going to be easier to control.”

All three senators said forest thinning and stepped up forest management is an important part of wildfire prevention. But the U.S. secretaries of Agriculture and Interior, Tom Vilsack and Sally Jewel, visited NIFC at the start of this year’s fire season to warn that sequestration-driven cuts would mean tapping into prevention funds that go to just those types of programs, to pay for firefighting.

Vilsack sent a letter to Wyden on Aug. 1 saying that’s happening now. “I am notifying appropriate Committees of Congress that all funds have been depleted in the FLAME Wildfire Suppression Reserve Fund, and that all fire suppression appropriations … will be obligated within 30 days,” he wrote. “We expect to transfer available funds from other Forest Service accounts, as authorized by law.”

And that was before the past two weeks of ferocious wildfires in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and California.

Wyden said, “What the federal government has been doing is the bureaucracy basically takes money out of the prevention fund to put the fire out, and then the problem gets worse.” A new focus on prevention, collaboration, and providing firefighters with the best technology could break that cycle, he said.

“When a raging fire hits a small western community in Idaho or Oregon or California, people just come together,” Wyden said. “They don’t talk about Democrats and Republicans and people’s philosophy. The just come together, they put the fire out and figure out how to pick up the pieces. And so that’s what we’re going to do as western members of Congress, is take that message back to Washington, D.C.”

Crapo said the automatic, across-the-board cuts of the budget sequester need to be recast into agency flexibility to cut the right things to achieve the same savings, while still trimming the federal budget the same amount. “I don’t think there is agreement that we should lose those savings,” he said. “Most of the agency managers tell us that if we’ll give them the flexibility, they can achieve the savings Congress is asking of them, without the rigidity and the very damaging consequences that the sequester requires.”

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