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How to prevent another 2020 fire season? Northwest lawmakers call for more resources

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 18, 2020

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers listens to a constituent’s question on Aug. 7, 2019, on the campus of Gonzaga Univeristy. Now, McMorris Rodgers is among many Northwest lawmakers trying to prevent another historic wildfire season.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers listens to a constituent’s question on Aug. 7, 2019, on the campus of Gonzaga Univeristy. Now, McMorris Rodgers is among many Northwest lawmakers trying to prevent another historic wildfire season. (COLIN MULVANY)

WASHINGTON – In the midst of a devastating fire season, Northwest lawmakers are calling for more help from the federal government while pushing legislation aimed at limiting the destruction of future wildfires.

After Gov. Jay Inslee formally asked the Trump administration Wednesday to declare wildfires in Washington a major disaster – a move that would send federal aid to communities affected by the fires – Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, along with Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, led Washington’s entire congressional delegation Thursday in a letter calling on President Donald Trump to grant Inslee’s request.

McMorris Rodgers spoke with Trump directly on Wednesday and told The Spokesman-Review she showed the president photos from her recent visit to Malden and Pine City, two communities in Whitman County that were largely destroyed by a fire Sept. 7.

“I had never seen that kind of devastation,” she said, adding that Trump told her he stands ready to help. “I expect the administration to be very responsive.”

In a separate letter Thursday, Cantwell and Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on Trump to use his authority to request assistance from firefighters in other countries.

“With wildfires burning hotter, faster, and more frequently than ever before, our overworked frontline firefighting teams need backup from our allies that have the experience and grit to help tackle these historic blazes,” the senators wrote. “More personnel are desperately needed.”

The blazes raging across the West may even be enough to spur legislative compromise to reduce the risk of such catastrophic fires in the future.

Legislation prompted by past fire seasons has mostly failed to get the bipartisan support needed to pass. McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, introduced a bill last summer to promote forest management – including removing some trees and other potential fuel for wildfires – on federal land, but it has yet to gain another cosponsor.

Democrats and environmentalists have often dismissed such proposals as a gift to the timber industry or an effort to weaken federal control of public lands, but the 2020 fire season has brought a growing recognition that the abundance of fuel has something to do with the scale of the devastation so far.

“During this summer, where it feels like we’re living in the land of Mordor, it’s hard to be optimistic,” Susan Prichard, a University of Washington fire ecologist, said in a nod to author J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world. “But a lot of research on dry forest management … leaves us with a lot of optimism that we can do better.”

Prichard, who is based near Winthrop in Okanogan County, said decades of fire suppression have left forests more susceptible to the increasingly frequent massive wildfires in recent years. Especially in forests east of the Cascades dominated by ponderosa pine, she said, removing smaller trees and using controlled burns – fires set intentionally to reduce fuel – can leave forests more resilient.

A bill introduced in August by Sens. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican, and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein would increase the use of thinning trees and prescribed burns. It would also expedite environmental reviews for forest management projects and invest $100 million in biomass projects to burn dead and dying trees for energy, provisions likely to draw opposition from progressives in the House.

Risch has cosponsored the bill, and in a Senate hearing on Wednesday he urged his colleagues to support the bipartisan effort.

“Years of insufficient forest management have turned the West into a tinderbox,” Risch said in the hearing. “There are many factors that make wildfires spread, but regular fuel reduction is a critical and indisputable strategy to prevent wildfires of this magnitude from spreading.”

McMorris Rodgers called the Feinstein-Daines bill “something I definitely support in concept,” though she declined to say how she would vote on it. A spokeswoman for Newhouse said he “is absolutely supportive of his colleagues’ bipartisan, bicameral efforts and is continuing to review the legislation – as well as other legislation that is due to be introduced.”

On Thursday, Cantwell introduced another, narrower bill, along with fellow Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to promote the use of controlled burns. Democratic leadership, however, has largely been focused on another factor: the role of climate change.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been talking about this type of fire season for the West Coast for quite some time,” Prichard said. “We’ve been watching as our already warm and dry summers become warmer, dryer and longer, and so fire seasons have increased significantly in the past 30 years.”

Trump has repeatedly rejected the idea that climate change has exacerbated fire seasons. During a visit to California on Monday, the president dismissed the state’s natural resources secretary’s assertion that hotter temperatures were a factor, saying, “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”

“We know that climate change is making the fires start easier, spread faster and intensify,” Inslee, a Democrat, said Sunday on ABC News. “And it is maddening right now that when we have this cosmic challenge to this community – the entire West Coast of the United States on fire – to have a president deny that these are not just wildfires, these are climate fires.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents North Idaho, said in a statement he was not optimistic that the Democratic-controlled House will pass legislation to address forest management.

“So far, the focus of House Leader Nancy Pelosi and (House Natural Resources Committee) Chair Raul Grijalva has been to blame climate change for the fires,” Fulcher said, “with zero willingness to acknowledge fuel load and mismanaged federal forests that we know antagonizes endless wildfires.”

Asked whether she believes climate change plays a role in worsening fire seasons, McMorris Rodgers said well-managed forests are “one of the best ways to counter a changing climate,” pointing out that smoke from wildfires pollutes the atmosphere.

“I am more inclined to focus on forest management,” she said. “We’ve had fires for decades. We’ve had fires for centuries. I am concerned when people are so quick to point to climate change and they are not taking responsibility for forest management.”

Prichard said preventing a repeat of the 2020 fire season will require moving past this black-and-white argument and addressing the complex set of factors behind this year’s catastrophic blazes.

“I think it’s kind of ridiculous at this point, given what we know about climate change, to even have it debated,” she said. “Fire and fuels management are even more important now that we’re living under rapid climate change. Certainly, they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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