One burning solution to America’s fire challenges

Jeremy Bailey, TNC's Associate Director for Fire Training, during a prescribed burn at the Conservancy's Niobrara Preserve in Ainsworth, Nebraska.  Credit: Ryan Donnell
© Jeremy Bailey, TNC's Associate Director for Fire Training, during a prescribed burn at the Conservancy's Niobrara Preserve in Ainsworth, Nebraska. Credit: Ryan Donnell

Let’s fund the country’s fire disasters the way we do with other catastrophes and focus on prevention.

By Eric Aldrich, conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy

On a high ridge on New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains, Jeremy Bailey – who trains fire-workers for The Nature Conservancy – steps out of his pickup truck and looks out across the forest’s charred remains.

Until the 2011 Las Conchas fire, these fire-prone lands hadn’t burned for decades and were full of fuel – from brush to dead branches to big, old trees. So when a fire did come through the Jemez Mountains, it burned hot as hell and destroyed more than 60 homes.

Jeremy understands the complex role of fire on forests. Fire can both enhance and endanger our forests. Working for The Nature Conservancy, Jeremy trains fire-workers who plan and conduct controlled burns that can help prevent bad fires by clearing out brush that provide fuel for out-of-control mega-fires like Las Conchas. Small, controlled burns can prevent large and potentially dangerous mega-fires. “If we don’t use controlled burns to restore these forests, the problem is clear,” Jeremy says. “We can point to many places where suppressing fire for decades has actually made those forests less safe and less healthy and natural. But controlled burns have to be done carefully, and that takes coordination and funding.”
© Aftermath of the 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Credit: USDA Forest Service
If funds are available, land managers can plan controlled burns on these lands, restoring them to a healthy, natural and safe condition, and providing many benefits for wildlife and the communities’ that live in and around the forests.

If Funds Are Available

Across the country – especially in the West – fire-prone lands are perfect candidates for controlled burns and other activities that can restore forest health and improve safety for communities. But in a tragically ironic twist, money is too often unavailable for conducting controlled burns because the funds are consumed fighting out-of-control mega-fires.

The United States doesn’t fund fire disasters in the same way it funds all other natural disasters. Rather, the USDA’s Forest Service and Department of the Interior fund fire suppression from their annual budgets. During years of big out-of-control fires – when suppression costs are high – the agencies must borrow money from other programs to make up the difference.
© Properly thinned ponderosa pine in New Mexico's Jemez Mountains. Credit: Alan W. Eckert
For years, the practice of transferring high emergency firefighting costs has hurt the Forest Service and Interior Department’s ability to implement forest management activities that reduce fire risk and restore forest health. Since 2002, the agencies have exceeded their budgets to fight emergency fires 11 times. And this year, the agencies are projected to spend at least $200 million above what is currently available to fight wildfires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

Fortunately, Congress is considering a solution. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would fund emergency fire disasters like other natural disasters, ensuring that agencies don’t raid vital conservation programs when firefighting funds run out. This would bring up-front funding certainty for fire fighters and stability for a myriad of important forest health activities all over the U.S.

The bill has good bipartisan support in Congress, and many of our representatives agree on the urgent need to fix this fire funding problem. But, neither the House nor the Senate has passed a fix yet. The Nature Conservancy and more than 200 other organizations are urging lawmakers to help make that happen as quickly as possible.
© Flowers in bloom against a backdrop of scorched trees in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Credit: Alan W. Eckert
Many of those same organizations know the power of good policy to manage our forests. Created in 2009, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program has invested $155 million over five years, matched by $76.1 million in other funding for 23 huge projects. Across the country, it has reduced mega-fire risks across 1.45 million acres while also safeguarding clean water, improving habitat, providing jobs, helping tourism and storing carbon. By comparison, the single Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 in Colorado cost $352.6 million in damages, burned 18,247 acres, killed two people and destroyed 347 homes.

As Jeremy Bailey looks across the Jemez Mountains, he sees not only the forests of opportunity – where controlled burns can be used to restore nature and safeguard communities – but also hope. If Congress can fix the borrowing problem of fighting wildfires, professionals who care for our forests can spend more time restoring them and less time fighting fires.

Tags: Environmental Policy | Forestry | resilience | Trees

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