FLAME Act fails to curb fires; Simpson wants them declared as disasters

Lawmakers say fuel reduction must be a priority as the cost of fighting blazes escalates.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comAugust 25, 2013 

  • ROCKY BARKER

    Rocky Barker is the energy/environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman. He was chased to his safety zone by the firestorm at Old Faithful during the Yellowstone fires in 1988 and has covered fires in the West since. He is the author of “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America.”

The frustration that Idaho’s timber communities have about a lack of logging and thinning has now spread to one of the state’s most important tourism centers.

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall has been on the fire lines himself twice in six years for giant blazes that have threatened houses, interrupted the critical summer tourism season and are now giving some owners of recreation homes second thoughts.

Clearly frustrated, Hall told Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Mike Simpson last week that the federal government has to do a better job of reducing built-up fire fuels on the lands surrounding his community.

“The second-home owners are getting tired of this,” Hall said.

It’s a common refrain in communities such as Salmon or Kamiah and in the halls of the Idaho State Capitol. If only the federal government would manage these lands better, it goes, there would be less fire.

But a decade of aggressive thinning and prescribed burning projects widely supported by the Western Governors’ Association and pushed by the Bush administration — and even many environmental groups — has not reduced the size or intensity of wildfires across the West.

Critics say Congress is to blame because it has cut funding for thinning and logging since timber harvest levels dropped in the 1990s.

Risch stood up Tuesday at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise with Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, who all said they will make fuel-reduction projects a priority in Congress this fall.

“The fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policies for fire prevention are broken,” Wyden said.

Simpson said the Forest Service isn’t to blame when Congress doesn’t provide enough money for firefighting, forcing the agency to take money from fire prevention and other programs.

Earlier this year, the Senate stripped out $97 million of fire-suppression funds that had been added by Idaho’s Simpson, chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. The budget bill passed without the fire money.

“You’ve got to quit stealing money from other accounts,” he said.

UP IN FLAMES

The FLAME — Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement — Act was passed in 2009 to create separate funds for the Forest Service, so that surplus firefighting funds in quieter fire years could be saved for big years like this one.

But Congress took $200 million from the fund in 2011, as a part of the deal to keep the government running in the debt-ceiling standoff. Congress took another $240 million in surplus funds in 2012 and made the cuts again in 2013.

On top of those cuts, the Forest Service started this year with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines because of across-the-board cuts Congress approved. Add more than 2 percent of other cuts forced on the agency — which manages 193 million acres nationwide — and the overall cut is more than 7 percent.

Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador was among the lawmakers in 2011 opposed to increasing the debt ceiling without deep cuts in federal spending.

“The fires that are burning on our national forests in Idaho are the result of years of fuel buildup and dry weather, not congressional funding,” Labrador said in 2012. “I am passionate about making Idaho forests more healthy through management practices that reduce fuel loads.”

Foresters say that in many parts of the state, logging could more than pay for itself, offsetting the cost to the Treasury. But many of the forests of Southern Idaho are full of low-value trees, and selling them won’t pay for the costs of treatments such as thinning. Even if federal agencies had the money, it would take years to reduce the forests’ fuels enough to affect the landscape.

The millions of acres of fires that have burned the past 25 years in the Northern Rockies have dramatically reduced fuels in many areas. But millions of acres remain unburned, and foresters say even the thinned areas need to be treated again.

Then there are the effects of climate change, which are leading to hotter, bigger and more frequent fires.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report predicts that the acreage burned by wildfires will double by 2050 to about 20 million acres annually. Another USDA report predicts that for every 1.8-degree temperature increase the earth experiences — expected by 2050 — the area burned in the West could quadruple.

TREATING FIRES AS AN EMERGENCY

In the near term, Simpson wants to scrap the FLAME Act and pay for firefighting on an emergency basis, the way Congress pays for other natural disasters.

“Fire is every bit as much an emergency as a tornado or a hurricane,” Simpson said.

Simpson met with Hall and Sun Valley-area business leaders to urge them to launch a collaborative effort with the agencies and environmental groups to address built-up fuels on federal lands. He said that if a group could pull together a proposal, he would carry it in Congress.

Wyden, Crapo and Risch also advocated collaborative projects that develop plans to thin and log forests and burn them under controlled conditions.

Crapo pointed to his Clearwater Collaborative project in north-central Idaho, and Wyden touted his Malheur Agreement in eastern Oregon. Both have environmentalists and timber companies working together to make forests healthier.

George Wuerthner is an environmental activist, ecologist and author who has studied fire for more than 25 years. He wrote Wyden this week in part to challenge how collaborative efforts steer fuel treatment dollars away from where he says they are needed most — near communities.

“Focusing our limited federal dollars on fuel reductions immediately by communities and even more money towards reducing the flammability of homes is the only strategy that will work effectively to reduce fire danger to communities (and) firefighters,” he said.

Wuerthner told the Statesman that he could support “fairly severe” mechanical thinning — including logging big trees — near communities such as Hailey and Ketchum if it was a part of a broad, local program that included mandatory regulations requiring homeowners to make their houses more resistant to fire. The movement to clear brush and trees away from homes, replace wood-shake roofs and provide firefighters with “defensible space” is known as firewise.

Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen supports Simpson’s call for collaboration but says it’s critical that Congress provide the money to implement steps the parties agree to. And he supports firewise regulations and restrictions on development in areas where fire risk and topography make them essentially “indefensible.”

He wants states and the federal government to support similar restrictions, along with fuel-treatment funding.

“Every level of government should realize there are costs for development in indefensible places,” Schoen said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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