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Senate told to change way nation fights wildfires

Kevin Graeler Correspondent

WASHINGTON – Spending money meant for forest preservation to fight wildfires increases the risk of more fires in the future, witnesses told a Senate committee Tuesday.

“What we have learned over the years is that it is expensive to manage the lands, but even more so to repair the lands devastated by wildfires,” said Jon Wyss, chairman of the Okanogan and Carlton Complex Long Term Recovery group.

The Forest Service, which manages federal land that covers about 30 percent of Washington and 60 percent of Idaho, redirected $700 million of its budget this year because it ran out of money for fire suppression.

At least 65 million acres of federal land still needs restoration work, but the service’s ability to continue the projects is “severely constrained” by the current system, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported last week.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat the most severe fires as natural disasters and set up an emergency fund instead of depleting other resources. A majority of the Northwest delegation backs the bill, but it hasn’t come to a vote in either chamber.

Changing the wildfire budget is politically challenging because members of Congress outside the region don’t understand the problem, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairwoman.

Shifting money in the service’s budget isn’t the only issue, said Mike Burnett, chief of Chelan County Fire District 1. Federal, state and local responders must collaborate better when fighting fires.

Some management policies need to be changed, Burnett and Wyss said:

Local fire chiefs should be able to request aid without a state or federal official present to make an assessment, because the initial attack is the best opportunity to catch a fire and local units sometimes exhaust their resources while waiting for help.

The federal government should spend more to hire seasonal firefighters and managers who can train volunteers.

Land ownership should not be the primary concern when fighting fires. Earlier this year, an earth mover used for fire suppression on state and private lands was barred from Forest Service territory for not having federal certification, Wyss said.

Wildfires ravaged more than 1 million acres – about the size of Delaware – last summer in Washington, and 2014 featured the largest wildfire in state history.

Those two years might not be the worst the state will see, said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “The worst is still yet to come.”

After denying individual assistance the past two years, Federal Emergency Management Agency should reconsider its criteria to help those who are displaced, Wyss said. The Okanogan area lost more than 400 homes to fires in two years.

Gov. Jay Inslee requested individual assistance to help homeowners both years, but FEMA rejected the request both times, saying damage wasn’t concentrated enough.

“No kidding. The damage was not concentrated enough. We burned four times the size of Seattle,” he said. “To say we are disappointed is an understatement.”

Washington’s congressional delegation wrote a letter Nov. 5 to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate calling for a policy change, and the agency is seeking input until next January before deciding.

“You can be assured we will be providing written comments,” Wyss said.

Kevin Graeler, a student in the University of Missouri Washington, D.C., Reporting Program, serves as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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