New Forest Fire Funding Pushed In Congress As Fire Season Looms

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Kansas reflector

WASHINGTON – As wildfires in the United States increase in size, intensity and duration each summer, members of Western Congress are pushing for massive new investments in ecosystem management and wildfire mitigation.

With dry conditions across the country, 2021 could see major fires. Currently, Florida and parts of Kansas, Arizona, Minnesota and Montana are at high risk of “significant forest fire potential,” according to a provide of the National Interagency Fire Center.

Western states are going through a period of moderate to “exceptional” drought, according to the United States Drought Monitor. In Montana, more than 60% of the state faces drought conditions, according to a report Governor Greg Gianforte posted this week.

House lawmakers called for more attention to forest fire management and support for wildland firefighters during a hearing Thursday before a panel of the House Natural Resources Committee. It was only the second hearing this year for the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands subcommittee, and subcommittee chair Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) said the early attention illustrates the importance of the question.

“For those of us who live in the West, wildfires are one of the most immediate and obvious impacts of climate change. Forest fires are now a risk almost all year round, burning larger areas at a higher intensity. This will only increase as the climate continues to warm, ”Neguse said.

Neguse has an ambitious plan to create a Civilian Climate Corps, dedicated to strengthening forest fire prevention and forest management. The Biden administration included $ 10 billion for the jobs plan in its massive infrastructure proposal, the American employment plan.

Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) Said that climate change and the increased risk of forest fires from drought are changing the decades-old debate on how to manage the risk of drought. forest fires with forest thinning.

“One of the problems in this committee has been that it has always been about one or the other when it comes to dealing with fires: either you get out of the way or you ‘Another problem is that it is a phenomenon that cannot be controlled, ”Grijalva said. “Climate change has completely changed this whole debate.”

Grijalva said the Biden administration’s goals of reducing carbon emissions and creating jobs provide new opportunities to advance legislation to support forest management and firefighters.

“Holding this hearing is important as we discuss the Biden administration’s US employment plan and the resources we can use to meet the needs,” Grijalva told lawmakers during the virtual hearing.

Dry and flammable conditions

The problem is close to home for Neguse and other Westerners. The two largest wildfires in Colorado history both swept through the Neguse district last summer.

Wildfires caused a year of devastating losses in 2020. More acres burned in Arizona in 2020 than the previous two years combined. Montana lost more structures to the fire last year than it had since 2012.

Nevada has seen fewer fires than recent summers, but still issued air quality advisories due to the fires in California.

In total, wildfires burned about 10.3 million acres in the United States last year, according to the National Inter-Agency Firefighters Center, a government group dedicated to fire management. It was just a few thousand acres less than the record set in 2015.

This has added to the significant number of forest fires over the past 15 years. Since the NIFC began its modern forest fire registration in 1983, there have been 10 years where 8 million acres or more have burned. All of these recordings have taken place since 2004.

Riva Duncan, a retired Forest Service fire personnel officer who now defends firefighters, said the firefighting season has changed dramatically during his years in federal service.

“Over 30 years ago, when I started, the fire season was in July and August… and it wasn’t every year. There have been a few years without major fires, ”Duncan said. “The wildfire season today is closer to what we are starting to call a ‘fire year’.”

Forest fires now start as early as March and continue until November.

Scientists say climate change amplifies the risk of wildfires, with less snow, changes in precipitation patterns, and plants drying out during record heat waves.

A conflict over climate change

Democrats and Republicans in Congress generally agree on the threat of wildfires and the need for better forest management.

But while Grijalva and other Democrats see an opportunity to act more aggressively due to climate change, this approach does not suit some Republicans.

“Too often many of my friends across the aisle have blamed climate change for an ever-growing multitude of sins, including wildfires, while ignoring the real culprit behind our current disaster,” he said. said Idaho Republican Russ Fulcher at the hearing. “Decades of poor forest management, not climate change, has led to overgrown, diseased and dying forests.”

Fulcher and other Republicans blame the National Forest Service for the 68 million acres of high-risk forest it maintains. They believe the federal government should be more active in managing its lands and allowing more logging companies to selectively harvest trees before they catch fire.

The conflict stems from how much cutting or “fuel reduction” the federal government should allow and for what types of trees. Larger trees are more valuable to forestry companies. But environmental scientists favor the selective thinning of small trees, seedlings and brush for fire control – a slow and more expensive process.

“Large-scale thinning of the forest to manage fires conflicts with climate goals because the amount of carbon removed by thinning is much more than that saved,” said Beverly Law, professor emeritus at Oregon. State University, which studies carbon and forests. She recommended the targeted disposal of seedlings and saplings on high-risk lands.

Earlier this year, Neguse and Utah Republican John Curtis formed a bipartisan forest fire caucus to try to reach a consensus on the matter. Their press release did not mention climate change.

“I think there are bipartisan solutions that can solve the wildfire problems that are becoming so pervasive across the United States,” Neguse told colleagues at the hearing, after some Republican retreat on the issue. climate change. “I am committed to approaching these issues in good faith, and we should not just focus on what we need to do from a law enforcement standpoint.”

“Climate change, drought, we have to see them as part of the bigger equation and why it’s happening with such intensity,” Neguse said.

Lawmakers have launched many other bills dealing with forest fires.

For example, a target proposal
Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) would create an official job title of “forest firefighter”, a distinction from the current practice of hiring people as “forest technicians” to fight fires for as little as $ 14 an hour.

LaMalfa said the bill, which he introduced in February with just three cosponsors, is a first step in securing more benefits for firefighters.

“Once we fix that, we can get to the pay grid. It’s one step at a time here, ”LaMalfa told the committee.

Allison Winter is a Washington, DC correspondent for States Newsroom, a state-based nonprofit media network that includes Kansas Reflector.

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