Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., recently zeroed in on some common sense in wildfire prevention and forest health. He pointed out in a Senate committee this week that thinning and prescription burns are good for both.
“The only thing that stops us from adopting this strategy, which produces saw logs, makes the forest healthier, makes it fire resistant, is funding,” he said. “Why not concentrate on getting the funding to do these things?”
He’s right, but if it was that simple it would get done. Instead, extreme fire behavior ruled the summer, again, in the West, burning more than 8,000,000 acres. That is bigger than burning all of Hawaii or all of Maryland.
Congress has known for years that the way wildfires are funded drains the money away from preventing fires. It’s called fire borrowing. The costs of fighting wildfires blows right through the wildfire budget and then money that could have been spent on fire prevention is consumed by wildfire costs.
Merkley, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, have all been pushing for an end to fire borrowing. The policy solution can vary a bit, but it is essentially to treat massive wildfires as natural disasters. The funding for them would come from those disaster accounts, rather than shifting money away from fire prevention. Their colleagues have not been listening. Congress doesn’t fix it and then fires like the one that swept through Santa Rosa, California, happen and Congress holds more hearings about wildfires.
Merkley told us he is hopeful that there may be a change in fire borrowing this session. He did say members of Congress who live in states that experience hurricanes are worried that it could affect money available for their states when the next hurricane hits. Environmental groups are also wary of wildfire reduction being unwarranted logging in disguise.
More needs to be done than just fixing fire borrowing. Congress is considering a variety of bills to make it easier to do thinning and logging by allowing more projects to be exempt from environmental review or limit lawsuits. If what the federal government was doing was working, there might be reason to reject those ideas. But when 8,000,000 acres routinely burn in the West, the federal government’s policies are not working.