Preventing forest fires is in hands of Congress

For decades, Smokey Bear has been telling Americans: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

It’s good advice – doubly so for members of Congress. And yet, for another year, House Republicans and Democrats have been bickering instead of moving legislation that would help the U.S. Forest Service prevent the kinds of blazes now charring tens of thousands of acres across California.

The latest is the Trailhead Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties. In a matter of days, it swelled across more than 2,100 acres of hard-to-reach forestland, forcing mandatory evacuations and threatening thousands of structures.

There was also the Sherpa Fire in Santa Barbara County, which burned so fast last month that it jumped Highway 101. Meanwhile, the Erskine Fire in Kern County tore through more than 46,000 acres, including a defenseless small town of retirees.

California is a tinderbox. After years of drought, warmer temperatures and a bark beetle infestation, 66 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada and these wildfires are only the beginning.

All the more reason for Congress to act sooner, rather than later.

Yet, for more than a year, HR 167 has been more or less collecting dust. The legislation, also known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, would allow the Forest Service to dedicate more of its $5.6 billion budget to forest management, rather than to fighting fires.

That kind of financial flexibility doesn’t exist right now because the federal government, for some ridiculous reason, refuses to treat wildfires like the natural disasters, deserving of emergency funding, that they are.

Therefore, every year, the Forest Service sets aside money for wildfires at the 10-year average cost. But when the cost of fighting them tops that, which is what’s been happening a lot lately, the agency must use its own budget, not emergency funds, to pay for it.

That means forest management programs that could actually prevent wildfires – such as clearing brush from trails and campgrounds, and setting controlled burns to take out dead trees – regularly go underfunded and undone.

This year, a full 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget is being spent on firefighting. That’s up from 16 percent in 1998. If Congress doesn’t act, it will be 67 percent of the agency’s budget by 2025.

“We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reiterated in June.

HR 167 would do that, letting the Forest Service tap into emergency funds to fight the most disastrous of wildfires.

If that sounds like a no-brainer, it is. So much so that, in addition to authors Oregon Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, 147 members of the House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors.

Among them are 33 Republicans and Democrats from California. Conspicuously missing is Rep. Tom McClintock, whose mountainous district is particularly susceptible to wildfires. He has his own plan, which also has gone nowhere.

With thousands of acres burning across the state, people dying and no relief in sight, only you, the voter, can light a fire under Congress. We can’t afford, however, to continue to actively do nothing. Year-round fire seasons are now the new normal, and the cost of battling them piecemeal is too great.

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