Over the last two weeks, the nation’s attention has been on California, which has suffered the most destructive series of wildfires in recent history.
Dozens of lives have been lost. Thousands of homes and businesses have been destroyed. And hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and agricultural land have been scorched.
Earlier this year, Oregonians woke up to ash on their windshields and evacuation alerts on their phones. Thousands of people in Montana, Idaho and Washington suffered the same.
Residents across the Western United States are now all too familiar with smelling smoke in the air and looking out over the horizon at a blood-red sunset through a hazy sky.
While fires still blaze across the West, the immediate focus must be containing fires, evacuating communities at risk and providing temporary food and shelter. Then we’ll have to make sure individuals and families get the help they need from the local, state and federal government and nonprofit organizations.
But once those immediate needs are addressed, we need to examine the long-term implications of this year’s horrendous fire season. Simply put, we need to change how Congress funds federal agencies in charge of forest health and wildfire suppression — the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management — so they can use their budgets to manage public lands more effectively.
We introduced the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to stop the harmful practice of “fire borrowing” that occurs when Congress fails to allocate enough money upfront to fight wildfires, forcing federal agencies to take money from wildfire prevention accounts to cover costly firefighting efforts.
The Forest Service told us that since 2002 it has been forced to transfer more than $4 billion from non-fire programs to cover the cost of wildfire suppression. This year alone, the agency transferred $576 million.
Dipping into these wildfire prevention funds only makes future wildfires worse, a vicious cycle we’re determined to solve.
Putting an end to fire borrowing will allow the Forest Service to use its fire prevention funds for their intended purpose: clearing hazardous fuels in our forests and completing other forest management activities, such as processing environmental reviews for areas impacted by insects and disease.
After years of failed attempts, now is the time to pass this legislation as quickly as possible to address fundamental forest health challenges, especially in light of climate change.
Because of rising global temperatures, fire seasons in California, Oregon and other Western states are more intense and last months longer than historical averages, according to the Forest Service’s fire budget report. Higher temperatures mean drier and more extreme weather. Despite a wet winter in California, five years of historic cycles of drought still led to very dangerous conditions — with heavy winds sweeping wildfires into suburban communities in a matter of minutes, leaving residents little or no time to escape.
In Oregon, fires ripped through hundreds of thousands of acres in the southwestern and central parts of the state as well as the iconic Columbia River Gorge, destroying an area of enormous recreational and cultural value. The Gorge fires there jumped the Columbia River to cross into Washington State — a terrifying occurrence only possible with these newly intensified infernos.
Higher temperatures also mean that diseases and insects can decimate once healthy forests. We’ve seen this in California, where more than 100 million trees have died since 2010 due to beetles and drought. Without funding to go in and clear them, those dead trees act as kindling waiting to go up in flames at the first spark.
In the void that has been created by lack of action at the federal level, states and communities have taken steps to address the many challenges of climate change. California and Oregon are leading the way. This year California expanded the state’s successful cap-and-trade program, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on emissions. And Oregon has an ambitious plan to produce 50% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2040.
Why? Because the status quo is simply unsustainable.
We can make our communities more fire resilient, we can fix the way we fund agencies that fight wildfires, we can better manage our forests and we can use safe development models, such as those promoted by the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities Program, which works to build homes and infrastructure that are more protected from the risk of wildfires.
All these reforms will help to make our states less susceptible to the terrible loss of life and property that has occurred this year.
If we take no action, we doom future generations to a far more dangerous world.