Technology, funding, legislation: Preventing and fighting wildfires

With 58 million acres of national forest lands at severe risk, officials seek a solution that addresses both wildfire budgeting and forest management

You’ve heard it before. Wildfires are burning hotter and more frequently. The fire season is longer. Suppression is expensive; fires do not recognize jurisdictions. Interagency coordination occasionally inhibits fire managers on the ground.

Loss of life and property is a real concern for your elected representatives, not just occasions for press briefings. So-called “fire borrowing” by the Forest Service from unrelated Interior Department accounts for combating wildfire is a problem known to Congress since at least 2003. Legislation to address money shortages and regulatory impediments may be on the way.

According to National Interagency Fire Center statistics, federal wildfire suppression costs have exceeded $1 billion in 12 of the last 15 years. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in June to address funding, now working through three House committees. Boasting 63 cosponsors, the bill provides new budget authorities of up to $3 billion each fiscal year through 2026.

A wildfire burns near the historic mining town of Landusky, south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana.
A wildfire burns near the historic mining town of Landusky, south of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in north-central Montana. (Meg Oliphant/The Billings Gazette via AP)

Past efforts to provide more federal dollars for prevention and suppression have been tucked into so-called omnibus spending bills as recently as last year. And past could be prologue as Congress returns to work.

Momentum is building for legislative responses most acutely in the House, where a bill passed in June to require the Interior and Agriculture departments to minimize red tape and apply categorical exclusions to certain plans for maintaining “defensible space” around electrical transmission rights-of-way developed under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Following the money and regulations in wildfire management

In June, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) met with crews and later credited CALFIRE for combatting fires that threatened the Yosemite Valley and saving the City of Mariposa. McClintock might be considered a “wildfire hawk” in Congress, arguing often for better forest management to relieve millions of acres in dead tree stands and excess fuel. He has also established himself as a critic of NEPA and the Endangered Species Act in debates over drought and timber bills since joining the Congress in 2010.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR) was a forester before his 2010 election to the Arkansas State House and the U.S. House in 2014. His Resilient Federal Forest Act was reported by the Natural Resources Committee to the full House in late June. Cosponsored by Western state Republicans plus moderate Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN); liberal Rep. Richard Nolan (D-MN); and an elected firefighter, Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), the bill seeks to tackle the need for fire borrowing by streamlining the NEPA-mandated environmental review processes and cutting down on litigious challenges to efficient forestry.

Average tree density in the Sierra Nevada is approximately 266 trees per acre acre – more than twice the standard considered healthy for that region. “This has caused a massive tree die-off and we have entire national forests now just waiting to explode with over 100 million dead trees,” McClintock reported. All told, around 58 million acres of national forest lands are at severe risk of wildfire.

Large conflagrations represent a tiny percentage of total fires, but they end up costing government 30 percent of total expenditures each year, according to Victoria Christiansen, a deputy chief within the Agriculture Department in testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In exchanges with senators, she cautioned that prescribed burns, hazardous fuels treatment on 3 million acres each year of the wildland urban interface and risk reduction through timber harvesting are only partial solutions. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) challenged her on those measures, noting that only 200,000 of the treated acreage involved thinning.

Wildfire tech shows potential

The Senate panel held a hearing in August on breakthrough innovations and fire science as almost 39,000 fires had burned a landmass nearly the size of New Hampshire. Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was unambiguous, sitting across the dais from officials with the Forest Service and the Interior Department, a researcher and a city official from Washington state. “What we really need is a comprehensive solution that addresses both wildfire budgeting and forest management.” However effective, fuel breaks are hardly high tech.

Wildfire science that could bolster prevention and mitigation is improving. Alaska State Forester Chris Maisch explained that robust fuels mapping of vegetation types and masticated fuel breaks have helped in Alaska and Arizona. Geospatial risk maps and fireground reconnaissance by drones are improving awareness and containment strategies. There remain limitations, however.

Maps must be updated and drones have limited visibility, flight times and battery charging needs. Constant connectivity for relaying navigation and data “is a dream for us,” said Murkowski. Maisch described a satellite-based system under development that can instantly spot wildland fires as showing real promise in part because it can also detect false positives.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) emphasized the increased flood risk to communities adjacent to burned acreage, so much so that a newly drafted flood insurance reauthorization accounts for it. Dr. Mary Ellen Miller, an engineer at the Michigan Tech Research Institute, introduced the Rapid Response Erosion Database to the panel, a new tool designed to address that threat to safety and property by combining acquired NASA data sets with erosion and runoff models that can help emergency managers and planners when the time comes.

Meanwhile, Maisch suggested Firewise USA and an informational mobile app offered by CALFIRE as forms of reverse 911 for citizens, resources your own communities could benefit from. Burn bosses may soon be able to tap into similar technologies, though interoperability is still a top concern at Interior.

Growing dissatisfaction in Congress is bipartisan. Wyden called the system “a broken dysfunctional mess. This fight that’s been going on, it’s the longest battle since the Trojan war,” he added. Said McClintock, “after 45 years of experience with these laws, I think we're entitled to ask: How is the forest environment doing? And the answer is damning.”

About the author
Michael Kirby is managing editor with Federal Network, a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web.

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