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McMorris Rodgers, Cantwell told to prepare for next year’s wildfire season

Oct. 14, 2015 Updated Wed., Oct. 14, 2015 at 9:44 p.m.

After one of the state’s most catastrophic wildfire seasons in history, the federal government needs to start preparing now for next year, a contingent of Inland Northwest officials told a congressional delegation in Spokane on Wednesday.

“Last year was a 100-year (fire), this year was a 100-year,” said Mike Bucy, Stevens County Fire District 1 chief. “Mark my words, next year’s the 1,000 year. And what are we doing about it?”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Sen. Maria Cantwell convened firefighters, including Bucy, who fought this summer’s 100-square-mile Carpenter Road fire, as well as local elected officials and business owners to talk about the response to 2015’s record-setting fire season. More than 1 million acres have burned in the state, according to fire officials, and the federal government is spending more and more of the money set aside to prevent large-scale blazes on emergency firefighting efforts.

That approach could cost taxpayers more in the long run, Cantwell said. It allows the buildup of fuels that feed windswept blazes like July’s Chelan Complex fire, which scorched about 140 square miles and claimed the lives of three firefighters.

Chris Schulte, chief of the fire department in Connell, Washington, told the lawmakers he’d seen the difference made by fire prevention measures while fighting the Wolverine fire in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. He supports prescribed burns, and said areas where fuels had burned in previous years gave firefighters the opportunity to contain flames.

“We were able to hold on very steep and nasty ground, and you couldn’t put people on it,” Schulte said. Fewer dry fuels enabled firefighters to contain the blaze using aircraft, which wouldn’t be possible in untreated areas, he said.

Cantwell cited figures from the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she is the ranking member, that the cost of fighting fires in areas that have been thinned is one-third the cost of fighting fires in areas that haven’t.

Both McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, and Cantwell, a Democrat, agreed that something had to be done about so-called “fire borrowing,” where the U.S. Forest Service takes money that should be spent on prevention and instead uses it to fight fires. The Forest Service said in a 2015 report that the agency is at “a tipping point” after more than half the department’s budget was spent on firefighting for the first time in history.

McMorris Rodgers pointed to a bill that passed the House of Representatives this summer, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to supplement money the Forest Service spends on fighting fires.

“Right now, we’re robbing from Forest Service accounts,” she said.

The Senate is working on its own version of the bill, McMorris Rodgers said. President Barack Obama threatened a veto of the House legislation, saying one of its provisions denied citizens the ability to legally challenge the federal government’s actions on forest management.

Cantwell said the discussion led her to consider whether a federal grant program should be set up to enable high-risk fire areas to apply for money before the season begins.

Officials disagreed on Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision to authorize volunteers to fight this summer’s unprecedented fires. In a related issue, some said able-bodied firefighters were prohibited by local officials from aiding efforts.

Bucy said the issue came down to trust.

“I can’t supervise people I don’t know,” he said.

Schulte agreed.

“You don’t want to put people who don’t know when to run away out on these fires,” he said.

McMorris Rodgers and Cantwell also were briefed on the technological needs of firefighting crews. Schulte praised the possibility of using drones to monitor fire activity, because some blazes didn’t receive infrared mapping for days during the height of fire season. Cell towers also are needed in rural areas to allow communication and access to the Internet.

Cantwell said she was encouraged by the discussion and efforts in areas hit hard by fires in recent years to create defensible spaces around homes.

“It’s a lot of going out and educating people,” she said. “But it’s also a lot of fire reduction.”

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