Western state lawmakers from both parties said Tuesday the federal government’s firefighting efforts don’t seem to place enough emphasis on prevention, resulting in the devastation that took hold in eastern Arizona, where more than 733 square miles have burned since Memorial Day.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee conducted an oversight hearing on the federal government’s wildfire management program, offering a timely topic, given the series of fires burning in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told the committee that the focus on suppressing fires rather than preventing them has to change. He said that firefighters in Arizona have made clear that flames burned lower to the ground and more slowly in areas that were treated to remove excess trees and vegetation. He credited the thinning with saving four communities in Arizona.
The chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Thomas Tidwell, said that the agency had increased its focus on prevention over the years. It reduced hazardous fuels on nearly 3 million acres last year — about twice the level of a decade ago. Yet, lawmakers made clear they believe that more should be done.
“The cost of fighting the fires and reconstructing afterward far exceed the prevention costs,” Kyl said. “It’s like any other medical situation. Prevention will save you a lot of money in the long run, but it does require an upfront commitment.”
Despite the overall focus on cutting federal spending, Kyl said he would work with the committee to find more resources for prevention efforts.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-0re., criticized the Forest Service’s budget for 2012 because it calls for a slight reduction in funding for a program that reduces hazardous fuels. He said the magnitude and frequency of fires will only grow unless the agency changes course.
“Our forests are just taking a beating from insufficient thinning,” Wyden said. “It is obvious that these overstocked stands are just magnets for disease and insects, and when they’re dry, they just go up in smoke.”
Kyl also called on the timber industry to help offset thinning costs and for environmental groups to cooperate with the treatments, a reference to lawsuits that he believes have hindered some thinning efforts.
Kyl told the committee that he has a cabin near the resort town of Greer that was threatened by flames. Meanwhile, a neighbor about a half mile away lost a home to the fire. In all, about 31 houses have burned in the fire.
Tidwell also addressed questions about whether the agency had enough personnel to battle the growing number of fires. He assured lawmakers that the agency has adequate resources to battle wildfires this year, even though the number of fires so far is about twice the average. He noted that key areas of the country have had far more snow than usual, which should improve conditions in the northern Rocky Mountain states and in California.
“So it remains to be seen how severe this fire season is going to be overall, but based on the level of fire activity and projections for the rest of the year, suppression funding should be sufficient,” Tidwell said.