Bill would give US Forest Service funding for ongoing wildfire fight
The U.S. Forest Service continues to combat a two-front battle of annually diminished budgets and soaring wildfire expenditures, but help may be on the way.
Along with Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-California), Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado), who represents the state’s 2nd congressional district, introduced updates late last month to the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) guidelines for distributing relief funds in emergency situations. The aim of the Wildfire Prevention Act of 2015 is to redefine ever-increasing wildfires, so they are treated the same as such natural disasters as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.
The FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015, which includes specific language from the two legislators’ efforts, passed the House on Monday, Feb. 29 with a voice vote and without opposition. The bipartisan bill now heads to the Senate and, if it receives a majority of votes, then goes to President Obama’s desk.
“Under current law, wildfires are not considered natural disasters, which makes it impossible for communities to drawdown federal resources to control and respond to these devastating catastrophes,” said Rep. Polis in a press release. “I’m relieved to see this commonsense solution pass the House and thankful that neighborhoods around … Boulder and Fort Collins devastated by wildfires can now access the necessary funds they need to recover.”
His press secretary added that the hope is nothing else is tacked onto the bill that might prevent it from being passed in the Senate. The goal is also to have the legislation finished and passed through Congress by the end of the year and on the president’s desk for approval before a new administration is brought in.
The news comes as a sigh of relief for forests across the nation, and the White River National Forest is no different. An annual report released by the forest surrounding Summit County detailed how the budget has been whittled down from more than $30 million in 2009 to under $18.5 million in 2015. The budget for the 2016 fiscal has yet to be released, but estimates fall between $15 and $16 million.
Meanwhile, use of the forest only continues to be on the rise and increased numbers of guests visit each year — all while the number of employees remains on the decline, from 178 in 2003 down to 116 in 2015. That’s on top of the persisting reallocation of general program reserves to suppress and mitigate fires — an exercise known in the service as fire borrowing — as wildfires grow in regularity, dimension and intricacy. Colorado avoided severe wildfires in 2015, but it was a record year for the country as a whole.
“Fire season is no longer just a summertime phenomenon, especially out West,” said County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. “We’re seeing fires start earlier each year and end later. They come with enormous complexity with personnel and with cost. The cost of fires is skyrocketing.”
Gibbs, who is also a certified wild lands firefighter, talked of how currently, depending on how a fire begins, the county could be on the hook for the suppression efforts, as was the case with Brush Creek Ranch fire in October 2015, north of Silverthorne. That wildfire came with a price of more than $200,000 for the county, according to Gibbs.
“If that were to stay within county lands,” he continued, “and houses were destroyed, it could be even more. It’s just an enormous amount of money. It could bankrupt county if the fire were complex enough.”
That’s off the Tuesday release of an interactive map through Environment Colorado, using data from FEMA, showing the impacts of climate change and carbon pollution on the state’s forests. Regardless of the cause — and the debate carries on — temperatures continue to tick upwards, drought conditions are on the rise and more of the nation’s prized forests are being swallowed up by flames.
“Not many of us has stood on a glacier, but most have been in a forest, and they are changing at a similar rate as the glaciers,” said Jamie Werner, forest director with the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. “How much they change is up to us, but, if we continue on the path we’re on, a business-as-usual approach, we’re currently looking at a worst-case scenario of 90-percent loss of our forest by 2080.”
The need for measures to offset emissions and mitigating potential human impact on the forests is one thing. But the new FEMA wildfire disaster legislation in Washington, D.C., if passed and eventually signed into law, should at least help the forest service both locally and nationally in its attempts to simply maintain these precious lands for generations to come.
“I think if you ask most people in the community whether or not they thought wildfires are listed in FEMA’s scope in terms of catastrophic events,” said Gibbs, “they’d probably assume that they are and considered just like other natural events. But they’re not. This bill is a real positive step forward to have the federal government and FEMA play a more active role with wildfires. It allows state and local governments to tap into federal resources when fires get complex enough, when they’re out of control for what we can handle and manage.”
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