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Congress, fix the funding problem to fight wildfire

As the population grows and climate changes, funding doesn’t keep pace

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In 2017, California experienced the worst wildfires in its history, with tragic loss of life and devastation to communities.

It was also the most expensive fire season yet. The cost of fighting wildfires across the country topped $2.4 billion, far more than Congress had appropriated to the U.S. Forest Service for fighting fire. It also costs more money to fight wildfires to prevent them in the first place.

Fires become more frequent while forest health continues to decline

The Forest Service is spending more and more of its budget to fight wildfires, from 16 percent in 1995 to over half in 2015. This means there is less and less available for other critical programs that restore forest ecosystems back to health and reduce the risk of megafires.

This kind of practice disrupts and delays the important on-the-ground work to prevent fires, such as forest thinning and controlled burning.

Megafires

A fast-moving, high intensity forest fire that burns an area of 100,00 acres or more

Forest Thinning

Creates a forest with widely spaced trees at a variety of heights, leading to more natural diversity

Controlled burning

An intentionally-ignited fire contained within a designated area. The goal is to remove highly-flammable undergrowth (and thus reduce the risk of forest fire)

It creates a vicious cycle: When fire prevention work is put on hold, the risk of megafires increases. When megafires happen, money must again be borrowed from the funds set aside to fight them

David Edelson, Sierra Nevada Program Director at The Nature Conservancy

The estimated cost of damage from one fire is $1.8 billion

© Luke Flynt

Wildfires continue to get larger, hotter and more destructive

Declining forest health is as much of a problem for people as it is for nature. Forests cover one-third of the United States. The Forest Service manages fully one-fifth of California’s land area and roughly half of the state’s forests. Forested watersheds are the source of most of California’s developed drinking water and the foundation of rural economies throughout the state.

Unhealthy forests and the resulting fires put these values at risk, threatening not only lives and communities, but also seriously degrading air quality, water quality and recreational opportunities, while releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases.

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This problem can be fixed

There is a bipartisan agreement that the federal government needs to fix the way it pays for fighting wildfires, and there are proposals in Congress that would allow the Forest Service to tap into emergency funds when it exceeds its firefighting budget.

It is far more expensive to fight wildfires and to rebuild after fires than it is to prevent them

Mark Kramer, Director of Federal Government Relations at The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy is working with a broad coalition that includes rural counties, water utilities, federal and state agencies, academic researchers and timber companies.

© Jason Houston 2016

The Conservancy urges Congress to move forward with the bipartisan Forest Service budget fix. California has a lot riding on the budget fix, especially in the Sierra, where the water supply serves a population of 23 million people. It is time to shift the focus to proactive management that can help protect people, forests and local economies.

Tell your representatives that healthy forests are important to you

 

Hero photo: © Vince Fleming

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