Federal officials have announced a new plan that’s meant to help lower the risks of mega-fires. Northwest lawmakers are helping roll out the strategy to reduce hazardous fuels and improve forest health.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the plan a “real game plan for reducing the 80 million acres of hazardous fuels that constitutes the backlog on Forest Service lands.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service would work closely with state and local officials to identify the best areas to treat using thinning, prescribed fire and “unplanned fire in the right place at the right time,” said Vicki Christiansen, interim chief of the Forest Service.
“The current forest conditions demand our attention,” Christiansen said during a news conference. “Treatments to reduce fire severity have been conducted for years, yet catastrophic wildfires have continued to grow. Although locally successful, these treatments have rarely succeeded at the scale needed for the lasting impacts across the landscapes.”
That would mean increasing the number and size of forest projects on larger areas and across boundaries, said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. He called the newly released plan a “smarter and more aggressive” way to accomplish those goals, by working more closely with state and local partners and public and private landowners. All would share in decision-making, he said.
“Fire, as you know, knows no boundary,” Perdue said.
Every state has a fire action plan that has outlined areas the most in need of treatment, said George Geissler, Washington’s state forester and president of the National Association of State Foresters.
“We have already identified where this (treatment) work needs to be focused, regardless of who owns that land,” Geissler said. These state action plans can be guidelines for coordinating firefighting across different boundaries, according to the report.
The strategy would also make use of technological advances, like remote sensing, fire simulation tools and mapping technologies.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted one recent example of technology helping firefighting efforts: A drone helped spot a fire that had started behind firefighters. This plan, she said, brings technology and management to all levels of forest management to help reduce fuel buildup, especially in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface.
“It is about ensuring that we have efforts to scale and face the real science of this problem, help at-risk communities prepare to respond and make sure firefighters have adequate resources so they can be as safe as possible,” Cantwell said.
She said it’s important to put fires out as soon as they start, so that they don’t grow into mega-fires. That’s not the same approach many scientists now recommend — more often they think some wildfires need to burn when they don’t directly threaten communities.
Another big challenge to fighting wildfires is climate change, which Cantwell said is leading to “more fire starts and more volume in the types of fires that are burning all across the West.”
Agriculture Secretary Perdue did not directly acknowledge the affect of climate change on wildfire risk. Instead he said, the plan is about “focusing on what we can do today in order to mitigate the impact of longer fire seasons, hotter fire, drier conditions.”
Wyden said climate change and mega-fires are creating “clean air refugees who literally are traipsing from place to place just to find breathable air.” People like pregnant women, children and older adults, who he said are escaping the smoke in Southern Oregon.
In a speech earlier in the day on the Senate floor, Wyden railed on federal policy he said exacerbated climate change — and thereby increased the risks of mega-fires. He took aim at the Trump administration’s rejection of the Paris Climate Agreement, the Environmental Protection Agency’s vehicle fuel standards rollback and the Interior Department’s rollback of environmental protections.
“I was one who voted for (Interior) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke. He said he was going to be a ‘Roosevelt Republican.’ He said that nine times in his hearing in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. And I thought … I’d give it a shot,” Wyden said. “I now consider that one of the worst votes I’ve cast in my time in public service.”
Zinke sparked controversy this week when he blamed “environmental terrorist groups” for California’s severe wildfires, while refusing to acknowledge that climate change was a major factor.
Climate change affects everyone, he said, not just people experiencing the “new normal” of wildfires and choking smoke in the West. There, Wyden said, it’s no longer a fire season, but a fire year.
“This is not the stuff of fiction. This is real life for communities across the West that are just getting clobbered by fire,” Wyden said. “This is climate change at work.”