Opinion Pieces

Chronicle Guest Commentary: Time to Change How We Combat Fires, Fund Efforts

It only takes a quick look in the newspaper to know that this year’s wildfire season has been bad—endangering communities, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, and costing millions of dollars to contain the destructive flames.

It only takes a quick look in the newspaper to know that this year’s wildfire season has been bad—endangering communities, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, and costing millions of dollars to contain the destructive flames. Over the past 20 years the U.S. Forest Service has had to more than double the resources necessary to fight wildfires. Each year, it drains its wildfire fighting budget and must dip into funds supposed to be used for maintenance work in our national forests.   The result is disease and fire-prone forests, and an even greater risk of catastrophic wildfire.                                                            

It’s time to change how we combat wildfires in the short term, and do more to prevent catastrophic fires in the future.  First, we need to alter the way we fund federal wildfire management so we have the necessary resources for these emergencies.  Second, it’s time to actively manage our national forests so that they’re healthy and fire-resilient, rather than diseased tinderboxes prone to disastrous wildfires that threaten private and state - managed lands and surrounding communities.


 The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 would give the federal government an immediate tool to more effectively fight wildfires. Currently, the very same wildfires that forced the evacuation of homes in North-Central Washington and displaced families to seek shelter at a local high school are not eligible for the same emergency funding as other natural disasters.  This bill changes that, allowing the U.S. Forest Service to access emergency resources without having to deplete the rest of its budget. My colleagues on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee and I have been working to build bipartisan support for this legislation. The Obama administration has voiced its support for this initiative and I’m optimistic that we can get this necessary change written into law.

Fixing the way we fund wildfires is important, but it’s only a start. The constant increase in wildfires points to a larger root problem: the chronic mismanagement of our federal forests. Twenty years ago, the well-intended but deeply flawed Northwest Forest Plan was adopted, ushering in a “hands-off” forest management style.  The ensuing surge in wildfires in combination with other troubling symptoms — insect infestations, a decline in wildlife species, the rapid spread of disease — have spurred a growing number of scientists, wildlife biologists, conservation organizations and academics to sound the alarm that our federal forests are in trouble.  Year after year of overgrowth and fuel buildup continue to compound the problem, leading to the fires we’ve seen in recent summers that burn hotter and longer.  In turn, wildlife habitat is being destroyed and our clean water is being severely threatened.  We desperately need to remove fuel buildup and create openings throughout the forest landscape to help provide natural fire breaks.

Forest openings are not only important for wildfire prevention, but they are also necessary to support healthy habitat for many species within the forest. A healthy forest has a mosaic of age classes, each habitat able to support different species.  Many species rely on the plant life that is found only in early forest conditions for foraging and survival. For example, Northwest deer and elk have been forced onto smaller swaths of private lands due to lack of foraging areas in our federal forests. The prey of the northern spotted owl also lived in these early forest habitats. As this habitat has disappeared, the spotted owl’s population has continued to decline at 3 percent each year. 

While the consensus for active management is solidifying, we must avoid some of the riskier “active” approaches that could cause more harm.   In July, the head of the U.S. Forest Service stated in a congressional hearing that the agency would intentionally burn 65 million acres of national forests in the name of fire prevention.  This approach would be extremely costly and risky - experienced Forest Service veterans and firefighters warn that such large scale prescribed fires could easily burn out of control.

What’s really needed is a sustainable, ecosystem-based, long-term rotating mosaic of age classes across the forest landscape that will provide a variety of habitats for a broad spectrum of wildlife and vegetation species.   

This is imperative for overall forest health and it will also benefit the communities who live and breathe in the shadow of our forests. 

Responsible timber harvests that meet the level determined as “sustainable” by scientists would be a win-win for the Forest Service and our communities.  The harvests would provide desperately-needed revenue for the Forest Service to carry out forest management, and would fund emergency services, schools and roads in the rural communities that have been devastated by twenty years of “hands off” federal forest policy.  

The long term prevention of devastating wildfires hinges on better forest management.  Fortunately, forest management does not have to be a choice between harvesting every stick of timber, or putting a fence around the forest and walking away.  As someone who grew up in Southwest Washington and now represents this region in Congress, I’ll keep fighting for common sense solutions that give our forests and communities the best chance of a healthy future.