Editorials

Preventing forest fires is up to Congress

Spot fires ignite a hillside amid the Trailhead Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The blaze has charred more than 2,000 acres in a matter of days.
Spot fires ignite a hillside amid the Trailhead Fire in El Dorado and Placer counties on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The blaze has charred more than 2,000 acres in a matter of days. aseng@sacbee.com

For decades, Smokey Bear has been telling Americans: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

It’s true for average Americans who venture into places with trees – but it’s doubly true for members of Congress. And yet, for another year, House Republicans and Democrats have been bickering instead of moving legislation that would help the U.S. Forest Service prevent the kinds of blazes now charring tens of thousands of acres across California.

There were grass fires in west Stanislaus County this week, the smoke visible from Modesto. Last week, we heard about the Trailhead fire in El Dorado and Placer counties, which swelled across more than 2,100 acres of hard-to-reach forestland, forcing mandatory evacuations and threatening thousands of structures.

There was also the Sherpa fire in Santa Barbara County, which burned so fast last month it jumped Highway 101.

There was the Erskine fire in Kern County, which tore through more than 46,000 acres including a defenseless small town of retirees.

California is a tinderbox. After years of drought, warmer temperatures and a bark beetle infestation, 66 million trees have died in the Sierra Nevada and these wildfires are only the beginning. We’ve had more fires in California so far this year than we had last. A research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service told the New York Times that our fire “season” is now year-round, especially in the west.

All the more reason for Congress to act.

Yet, for more than a year, HR 167 has been more or less collecting dust. The legislation, also known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, would allow the Forest Service to dedicate more of its $5.6 billion budget to forest management, rather than to fighting fires.

That kind of financial flexibility doesn’t exist now because the federal government, for some inexplicable reason, refuses to treat wildfires like natural disasters and thus deserving of emergency funding.

With thousands of acres burning across the state, homes being destroyed and people dying, only you, the voter, can light a fire under Congress.

So every year, the Forest Service sets aside money for wildfires at the 10-year average cost. But when the cost of fighting them tops that, which now happens every year, the agency must use its own budget to pay for fighting them.

That means forest management programs that could actually prevent wildfires – clearing brush from trails, setting controlled burns, removing dead trees – go unfunded and undone.

This year, fully 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget is being spent on firefighting – up from 16 percent in 1998. If Congress doesn’t act, it will be 67 percent by 2025.

“We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in June.

HR 167 would do that, letting the Forest Service tap into emergency funds to fight the most disastrous of wildfires.

That sounds like a no-brainer because it is. In addition to authors Oregon Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, 147 members of the House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors. Among them are 33 Republicans and Democrats from California, including both Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Jim Costa.

Conspicuously missing is Rep. Tom McClintock, who lives in Elk Grove but represents the mountainous district that was wracked by the Rim fire a few years ago and remains susceptible to ferocious forest fires. McClintock has his own plan, which has gone nowhere.

We can’t afford to continue to actively do nothing; the cost – in money and lives – is too great and growing. With thousands of acres burning across the state, homes being destroyed and people dying, only you, the voter, can light a fire under Congress.

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