Amid Destruction on West Coast, Senate Looks at Wildfire-Prevention Bills

The Glass Fire burns a hillside above Silverado Trail in St. Helena, Calif., on Sept. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

WASHINGTON (CN) — This summer, smoke from wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres on the West Coast, stained midday skies across America in a hazy orange hue. Wednesday, U.S. Senators heard testimony from experts on how to prevent those aggressive flames from devastating future communities.

The Senate subcommittee focused on oversight of the nation’s lands and forest and mining operations met to hear testimony on more than a dozen pending bills, chief among them being the National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020.

That bill, introduced by Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, would establish two funds with the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior specifically to increase the scale of controlled burns.

Wyden said the bill was an underfunded tool in the fire management toolbox, noting that without financial support, forest management teams would never get in front of wildfires through controlling the burn. 

Although there were over 86,000 prescribed fires burned between 2009-2018, those targeted infernos only used 3 million acres of potential flammable materials, while the nation’s annual loss from wildfires is on average 7 million acres.

“Due to changing climate, suppressing every fire is merely an insurmountable challenge, so much so that the question now is not if an acre will burn but when,” Wyden said. “The wildland firefighters I’ve spoken with would rather have that acre burn in the cooler, wetter months, with firefighters at the ready, rather than scrambling to fight a wildfire that ignites on the hottest, driest, windiest days of the year, in the backyard of our rural neighborhoods.”

Chris French, deputy chief with the Forest Service, testified Wednesday that wildfires throughout the country had burned more than two million additional acres across the country than an average year.

“We must embrace a paradigm shift in our approach,” French said. “The scale of our actions must match the scale of our problem. We know that we need to treat two to three times more acres per year than our current efforts and they need to be in the right places.”

Art Babbott, supervisor of the Arizona Coconino County Board of Supervisors, testified briefly on the “most critical bottleneck” on landmass restoration moving forward in the U.S.: millions of tons of no-value biomass within restored forests. A plan to dispose of tinder on the forest floor also was of paramount importance, Babbott said.

“To put this in perspective, an average of 30 tons of negative to no-value biomass comes off every restored acre in northern Arizona,” Babbott said. “If we do not have strategies to deal with the tens of millions of tons of biomass and fuel loads on these forest surface lands, we will not reduce the threats of catastrophic fire and the subsequent ecological sterilization of millions of acres of public land.”

Senator Mike Lee, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican member, briefly discussed mechanical thinning and treatment of specific wooded areas, prospected for controlled burns. Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney with West Environmental Law Center, agreed mechanical thinning of ecosystems had a role to play.

“I think that in most situations we do need all tools in the toolbox and in many situations, mechanical treatment prior to prescribed fire is the wise and best choice,” she said.

The committee discussed a myriad of bills Wednesday, most of them dealing with expanding federal lands or adjusting oversight of specific parks.

For example, the Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument Boundary Adjustment Act would add more than 97 acres of land formerly stewarded by the Forest Service into the oversight of the National Park Service.

Another bill, the Smith River National Recreation Area Expansion Act, would enlarge a California national park into specific segments of the North Folk Smith River, while giving the Agriculture Department the ability to study water features throughout that park.

The committee also heard testimony from Michael Nedd, the Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director of operations.

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