Editorials

McClintock, Denham fail to step up in fight against forest fires

A firefighter watches over the Rim Fire as it burns the other direction in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013; it became one of the largest in California history, consuming 254,000 acres and requiring 5,000 firefighters to extinguish.
A firefighter watches over the Rim Fire as it burns the other direction in the Stanislaus National Forest in 2013; it became one of the largest in California history, consuming 254,000 acres and requiring 5,000 firefighters to extinguish. The Modesto Bee

Wildfires are deadly, devastating and putting them out burns through cash faster than a stand of dry pine. When they’re raging, it calls for an all-out effort to bring them under control. And that includes from our representatives in Congress.

There is legislation in Congress that would help the U.S. Forest Service fight these devastating natural disasters – both as active fires and by providing funds to make them less devastating. It is embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike (in an all-too-rare moment of bipartisanship). The co-sponsors include 16 Californians, but two who should support it aren’t. We want to know why.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, H.R. 2862, by Reps. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., addresses something called “fire borrowing,” a wrong-headed concept that bases the budget for fighting fires on the 10-year wildfire cost. When that cost is exceeded – as it almost always is – Forest Service funds designated for prevention, such as clearing brush, are “borrowed” to pay for putting out the fires. The preventative measures are then ignored.

Without clearing brush, forests become unnaturally overgrown – creating a tinderbox ready to explode into even more ferocious flames.

Congressional analysts say in 2016, wildfire “containment costs” consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service budget – up from 16 percent in 1995. Knowing a warming planet creates more flammable forests, expect that number to reach 70 percent by 2025.

Failing to address the “borrowing’ issue is self-defeating. Without prevention, the costs of fighting fire become far, far higher – not to mention greater damage to private property and loss of life.

Last year, the Soberanes Fire raged across Big Sur for 82 days and cost $236 million just to extinguish. It helped turn 2016 into the worst year ever for forest fires. We can never forget the Rim Fire in 2013, which consumed 257,000 acres and cost $127 million to put out. Or the Butte Fire, which destroyed 550 homes and had total losses and costs of $2 billion.

This is not the first time Congress has tried to pass this bill. Versions in 2015 and 2016 stalled despite support. The latest iteration has 61 co-sponsors, including 16 Californians, among them Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale; Jim Costa, D-Fresno; Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, and John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is supportive; Kamala Harris should get engaged, too. Environmentalist organizations, forestry groups and much of the recreation industry want it passed.

With President Donald Trump proposing to cut $1 billion from the Forest Service budget, this legislation is utterly essential.

So what is keeping Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, from attaching his name to the bill? After all, many of his constituents are called upon to fight these fires; others have property in the mountains or family living in these communities. He should be front and center.

Rep. Tom McClintock, on the other hand, is committing political malpractice. He represents the fire-prone Sierra and has co-sponsored the bill in the past. But McClintock has his own alternative, the Resilient Federal Forest Act, which passed the House in 2015 but has gained little traction and a lot of opposition from environmentalists this year. They believe it will lead to more logging with less oversight. The art of politics is compromise, something Rep. McClintock rarely embraces; it would help in this case.

The cost of fighting forest fires is already too great in money, property and lives. We need to make sure firefighters have what’s needed to fight them. Must we light a fire beneath McClintock and Denham to force their support for HR 2862?

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