Fund the flames or extinguish the problem?

Posted: September 22, 2016

Source: The Forest Blog

Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western United States

Massive Smoke being released from a mega-fire in the Western UnitedStates

It’s summertime or the tail end of it at least.  Fires are still an issue for some communities, while others move towards the cool fall nights and rainfall.  We had another season of massive wildfires. Fortunately, the season was much better for those of us in Northeast Washington, while others still face significant loss concerning property and forest land.

This often brings up the subject of Fire Funding for US Forest Service.  At first look it makes lots of sense; fund the agency directly with the dollars necessary to fight these fires instead of continuing the practice of Fire Borrowing. Fire Borrowing is where the agency looks at all of its other programs, Recreation, Vegetation Management (Forestry/Timber), Range, etc. to “borrow” money to pay for the cost overruns of firefighting.  Fire borrowing has been happening for years and as the fires get larger and more costly to fight the problem gets bigger.
So, if we fund firefighting fully then it won’t take away from those other programs, right?  In many cases, yes, but there’s still other costs and misuse of funding.  The largest issue is that the personnel and managers fighting the fires, managing the fighting of the fires, and anything else to do with fire season are now not doing their day jobs while they are out there.  They also spend a great deal of time training for those firefighting efforts.  These are resources that could have been otherwise spent designing forest stewardship projects that help us reduce fuels and make our forests healthier, safer, and more resilient to fire, insect and disease outbreak.
We also continue to fight fires that shouldn’t be fought.  Why are we paying to have crews of firefighters fighting, or in many cases watching fires in the wilderness and backcountry?  If fire suppression is a real problem, why are we doing it in areas that are only going to become a larger problem in the years to come?  Shouldn’t we have a comprehensive strategy to keep natural wildfires in the backcountry from coming into the managed lands and the wildland urban interface? And at the same time shouldn’t we be focused intently on making sure the forests transitioning from managed lands to backcountry are in a condition that fire can be managed?
These are the concerns of many that are working collaboratively in the fire-prone forests of the west.  If Congress is going to act to fix fire borrowing and fund firefighting appropriately, some careful considerations need to be put into motion, so we don’t spend like drunken sailors and continue to be in this worsening mess of forest health.  If we are going to increase funding for fighting fires, we should equally increase the funding and efforts to restore our forests to a resilient condition.  Doing this has multiple benefits for the forest, the communities, and the workforce (both governmental and private sector).
I think Congress is well intentioned.  We just need to make sure they understand that moving fire funding forward without sound, collaborative forest management also moving forward will do the people and the forests a disservice.