Another round of epic wildfires is expected this year even as lawmakers differ over the primary drivers of such blazes and the best way to prevent them.
Democrats emphasize the role climate change plays in producing all-consuming megafires, while Republicans are more likely to cite the need for more active management and commercial harvesting of overgrown forests.
There is, however, broad agreement that the situation is serious and getting worse.
Current drought conditions in many areas are even more dire than at this point last year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on a press call last week.
“The signals and indications are that we are headed into yet another dangerous fire year,” Vilsack said. “Starting in the Southwest and moving throughout the western part of the United States, we’re seeing a higher level of risk and an earlier level of risk than we’ve seen in the recent past.”
Those warnings come as the West is still reeling from a historic 2020 fire season that saw more than 10 million acres, an area bigger than New Jersey and Connecticut combined, go up in smoke.
Northern California was hit by the first million-acre incident in modern history, while high winds drove devastating fires in Oregon. Blazes in Colorado kept burning into November.
“These days it seems as if the fire season is the entire year,” Haaland noted. “Climate change has brought longer fire seasons, and we are seeing more extreme fire behavior.”
During last year’s peak, a record 32,700 firefighters were deployed to battle the conflagrations.
Vilsack said federal agencies are gearing up for a repeat and have already started pre-positioning tankers, helicopters and heavy equipment in the highest risk areas so they can jump on fires quickly. He noted that more than 98 percent of those fires are typically contained, although the ones that spread out of control can cause massive devastation. He cited the need for collaboration with state and local officials, as well as tribal communities.
“It also requires us to acknowledge that we need to do a better job of treating our forests, of reducing the hazardous fuel buildup that’s occurred over decades,” Vilsack said.
Those mitigation efforts cost about $1,500 an acre, compared with the $50,000 per-acre cost of fighting a fire, he said.
Republican lawmakers have talked up the benefits of allowing more timber harvesting as a way to mitigate fire risk, but such approaches can face opposition from environmental advocates.
“Climate change has made fighting wildfires more difficult, and it’s important to keep in mind that we can’t log our way out of the climate emergency,” Randi Spivak, the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands director, said in a statement.
“Federal officials should not use the public’s understandable fear of wildfires to make a case for logging in the backcountry for fuel reduction and so-called resilience projects. We’re seeing too many clearcutting projects and logging of large fire-resistant trees in the name of restoration and much more road building.”
Spivak said the best way to protect people and property is to not build in fire-prone areas, rather than firing up chain saws miles from town.
Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said administration officials are doing what they should to prepare for an intense fire season but they should also use the opportunity to reevaluate basic assumptions about managing fire-prone federal lands in the West.
“The culture is still too much oriented at putting fires out, firefighting, as opposed to learning to live with fire, which means choosing the fires we want to have,” Wara said, adding that selective tree cutting won’t suffice. “They need to get out and put fire on the ground.”
He noted that state and private landowners can’t do it alone since federal land managers are responsible for about half the forests in California. He said federal land managers have viewed forest treatments as paying for themselves in the form of selling marketable timber taken during thinning. He said that’s just not realistic, however, and that the federal government needs to put much more money into the effort.
He also suggested that it work more closely with Native American communities in managing forests.
An outline of President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request included $1.7 billion for hazardous fuel reduction, an increase of $476 million over enacted levels.
But experts say it would take several times that funding level to really bring down the risk of out-of-control wildfires. Wara suggested $5 billion to $10 billion a year for the next decade.
That spending level would be worthwhile, he said, considering the devastation that wildfires have caused in recent years. That includes property damage and lives lost not just through the fires themselves but also premature deaths from the smoke pollution.
“We’re at a ‘break the glass’ moment in California when it comes to wildfire, and increasingly in the Rockies too,” Wara said.
Republicans often point to the need for more “active management” when it comes to public lands, which Wara said often translates into opening up the forests to major logging operations.
But aggressive clear-cutting creates areas that often grow back to be overly dense, he said, and when debris from logging operations is not disposed of, it provides even more fuel.
“Logging operations can create a lot of fire risk in the current context,” Wara said.
Congressional appropriations related to wildfires have increased over the years, but the cost of firefighting often interfered with getting money allocated to prevention.
That’s why lawmakers struck a bipartisan agreement to implement a wildfire adjustment mechanism starting with the fiscal 2020 budget.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., reintroduced legislation from the previous Congress that includes creating a $1 billion fund to step up wildfire reduction projects and has called for any major infrastructure legislation to include funding related to forest management.
During an April 14 virtual town hall, Merkley focused on drought issues and the continued wildfire threat.
He talked up the importance of hazardous fuels reductions and recounted visiting an area where managers had thinned the trees, mowed and conducted prescribed burns.
“When the fire . . . hit that stand of ponderosa pine it just came to a stop because the fuels were so different due to those efforts,” Merkley said.
Merkley said he became chair of the Senate Appropriations Interior-Environment Subcommittee this session in part to get more funding for wildfire prevention. A spokesperson for the previous chair and current ranking member, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, said the Alaska Republican looks forward to working on a fiscal 2022 bill that funds programs for healthier and more resilient forests.
Rep. Chellie Pingree, chair of the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, said she’s encouraged by the administration’s approach and her subcommittee has been focused on the resources needed to reduce high-intensity wildfires.
“Wildfires have caused thousands of Americans to lose their homes, impacted millions of acres of land, and cost taxpayers billions in disaster relief,” said Pingree, D-Maine. “The best way to confront this looming crisis is to get ahead of it now.”