Peter Goldmark Special to The Washington Post
Entering the final month of an intense wildfire season that has set the American West ablaze, with more than 17,000 wildfires across 2.3 million acres, Congress must recognize that its model for wildfire suppression is broken.
By failing to provide an emergency funding source for federal firefighting efforts, Congress has forced the U.S. Forest Service to pay for its firefighting efforts by cannibalizing programs that promote healthy forests and wildfire prevention. A recent report from the agency reveals that its firefighting workforce has more than doubled since 1998 while the number of its land managers has shrunk by 35 percent.
This self-defeating cycle ensures that the worse wildfires become, the less money the federal government can spend on maintaining healthy, fire-resistant forests. But investments in prevention result in a far smaller cost in human suffering, habitat loss, forest destruction, greenhouse-gas emissions and tax dollars than the billions spent each year fighting megafires.
The skilled first responders who fight these dangerous wildfires deserve the same emergency funding support that is given to those who respond to other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes.
As Washington’s commissioner of public lands, I lead more than 1,000 firefighters who defend roughly 13 million acres of public and private land from wildfires. We are still working with our state and federal partners to completely extinguish the largest wildfire in the history of Washington, the Carlton Complex, which has burned more than 400 square miles of Okanogan and Chelan counties since July 14, while confronting many new wildfires daily.
The towering, unpredictable and fast-moving Carlton Complex fire was unlike anything I had ever seen in more than four decades of firefighting experience.
On the night of July 17, a sudden change in wind stoked a firestorm that threatened to incinerate more than a half-dozen rural communities. As families fled, they drove through smothering smoke on roads bathed in a golden glow by the approaching fire. By morning, more than 300 homes had been lost and large areas of the town of Pateros were a smoking ruin.
No lives were lost that night, but I’ll never forget hearing from families forced to leave behind homes, farms, pets and livestock for the flames to consume. I’ll never forget the herd of panicked, bloody-faced deer that died head-butting a fence that blocked their only escape route.
Despite the scale of disasters such as the Carlton Complex, Congress still pays for federal wildland firefighting as though it were lawn mowing or picnic-table painting or any other routine administrative task. Several bipartisan legislative proposals would instead allow the Forest Service to tap into the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster fund to fight wildfires, as the federal government does when responding to other natural disasters. Faced with yet another opportunity to fix this situation before adjourning for a five-week recess, Congress failed to act.
In 1991, firefighting accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service’s budget; today, it consumes half, creating an enormous gap in funding for maintaining the health and fire resiliency of our forests and protecting at-risk communities. Millions of acres of federal forest have become all-you-can-eat buffets for forest- killing insects, parasites and diseases that spread quickly through the overgrown stands. Hot weather, dry conditions and one bolt of lightning is all it takes for these tinderboxes to ignite.
Unfortunately, the climate in the interior West, already prone to intense storms that create dry lightning, is becoming increasingly hot and arid. According to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group, twice as many acres burn and three times as many structures are destroyed during each wildlife season as in 1990, and the season now lasts two months longer.
This trend will get only worse: Projections from the University of Washington indicate that the average annual acreage burned by wildfires in the Pacific Northwest will nearly double again by 2020 and multiply four-fold in later decades.
Congress can take simple steps to better equip our country to confront this challenge.
States have had success using science-based forest management strategies that reduce fire risk by removing dead or dying trees, thinning overstocked stands that are susceptible to fire and disease, and regenerating new forests that are more healthy and fire-resistant. The Forest Service understands the benefits of these treatments, but Congress has not sufficiently funded them.
Congress should provide emergency funding to fight wildfires while greatly increasing the budget for stewardship of America’s shamefully neglected national forests. We must fix this broken model before more people, communities and wildlife suffer needless harm.
Goldmark is the Washington state commissioner of public lands.