Forest Service, Congress discuss wildfire

By Madilyn Jarman

Wildland firefighters survey a fire burning.

Both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the House Subcommittee on Federal Lands convened during the first week of June to discuss prospects for the 2018 fire season with U.S. Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen. Jeff Rupert, director of the Department of the Interior Office of Wildland Fire, also appeared before the Senate committee.

So far this year, 24,000 wildfires have already burned 1.7 million acres, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted, including the year’s first large-scale fire, which occurred in late April in Arizona.

Last year “was one of the most devastating wildfire years on record,” Christiansen said, with 10 million acres burned and 12,300 homes and structures destroyed. The Forest Service spent $2.9 billion suppressing wildfires across the country, also making it the most expensive year ever recorded.

The 2018 season is projected to be similarly devastating, Christiansen said, so the Forest Service is taking steps to combat wildfires before they spread.

Efforts planned for this year include the use of more prescribed burns to reduce fuel loads under favorable conditions. The Interior Department is also studying prescribed fires compared to wildfires and the impacts on public health.

“We’re much better off under a prescribed fire scenario where we control the circumstances and the volumes and the character of the smoke in the air as opposed to a catastrophic, uncontrolled wildfire,” Rupert said.

Legislators in both committees spoke about wildfire-related provisions in the 2018 omnibus spending bill that passed in March. These changes are expected to end “fire borrowing,” the practice of using funds appropriated for other programs to fight fires.

“Over 50 percent of the agency’s budget is directed towards suppression activities,” said House subcommittee Ranking Member Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, “which includes funds diverted from activities and projects meant to reduce the risk of large, catastrophic fires. This has become an unsustainable trend, so it is encouraging that Congress was able to include a bipartisian package of reforms in the omnibus.”

To help reduce the fuel load and increase the timber harvest, Christiansen reaffirmed her commitment to reducing the cost and time to complete environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. Congress added some categorical exclusions to in the omnibus, so environmental impact statements would not be required for activities in some areas. And, Christiansen said in the Senate hearing that the Forest Service has already reduced the costs of conducting environmental reviews by $30 million, in part by performing less-extensive environmental assessments instead of full environmental impact statements.

The omnibus did not give Interior as much flexibility, but the department has spearheaded efforts to use unmanned drones to survey fires across the landscape. When implemented, drones are expected to help reduce costs and risks to crew members. The department is also training Forest Service staff and local partners to use the technology to combat fires.

Madilyn Jarman is a Policy Communication Intern at The Wildlife Society. Read more of Madilyn's articles.

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