By Lindsay Mohlere
On the heels of a fire season that has turned into a devastating fire-storm, a bipartisan congressional crusade is beginning to heat up in both houses to fix the wildfire funding morass and forest management practices.
From Arkansas to Oregon, congressmen are pitching funding and management bills right to left as the Forest Service announced last month that the wildfire fighting budget just topped $2 billion.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, between January 2017 and September 25, 2017, there have been 48,850 wildfires nationwide, burning over eight million acres. This fire season, Montana has seen over one million acres go up in smoke, and Oregon slides into second place with over 474,793 acres torched. Fires in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, and Washington, as well as the southeastern states make up the rest.
Already, the 2017 fire season in the West and Northwest has seen “three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fires.”
And it’s not over yet!
Fire season is expected to continue well into November in some western states where widespread drought and uncommon hot weather has plagued the region for several years.
And still, congressional leaders bicker away at trying to find a funding and management solution that they can squeeze through the cracks without being sidetracked by happy-faced amendments and environmental special interest groups.
Help May Be Forthcoming
Seems like every politician who has a tree in the yard jumped on the funding fix bandwagon once they realized 2017 wasn’t going to be a laid-back fire season. Oregon’s Walden, Merkley, and Wyden; Montana’s Tester and Daines; and a host of others have been on the stump calling for change.
They did get a break in the FEMA disaster relief fund for severe flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. The amendment ensures federal agencies will have about $300 million to cover additional firefighting costs that go over agency budgets.
So that’s a step in the right direction. But not enough.
One of the most recent bills offered has come from Wyden to restructure the way wildfire fighting is funded, but several other members of congress don’t think it’s strong enough.
From what I can tell, the best package on the table is a bill introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., that would not only fix funding, but eliminate useless lawsuits and replace them with an arbitration system. The measure is called the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017.
According to the Washington Post, this bill would allow the USFS to thin trees on areas 10,000 acres or less without certain environmental reviews taking place first. Instead of going through the court system, issues would be resolved by binding arbitration. That way, each side has a fair shot, and it won’t take a year or better to get going.
Of course, many environmental groups are opposed. However, with the new pro-business attitude in Congress, the days of frivolous lawsuits may be on the way out along with the cash cow for groups like the Center for Biodiversity, the John Muir Project, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Alliance of Wild Rockies, and others.
A recent memo from Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, sums it all up nicely, “We simply cannot afford to continue business as usual. We must do everything we can to address the steady accumulation of fuels on our nation’s public lands and the resulting increased threats from catastrophic wildfires.”
Oregon Wildfires Make the National News
Two of Oregon’s major wildfires now have the dubious distinction of making national headlines.
The Chetco Bar Fire, burning in southwestern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, Kalmiopsis Wilderness, Chetco River corridor, and the Illinois River Valley, is labeled as the largest wildfire of the 2017 season with nearly 200,000 acres torched.
Ignited in mid-July from a lightning strike, the fire subsequently forced multiple road closures and several evacuations and threatened to breach the Brookings, Oregon, city limits as it grew at a rapid pace.
Thanks to the tremendous effort of suppression crews and air assets, along with the arrival of cooler temperatures and meaningful precipitation, the Chetco Bar Fire is now 97 percent contained and expected to be completely contained by October 15, 2017.
In the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic area, the Eagle Creek fire erupted one mile south of Cascade Locks, Oregon, on Saturday, September 2, at approximately 4:00 p.m.
Kicked up by hot, dry winds, the fire grew to 3000 acres overnight. Three days later, it had grown to 20,000 acres and had spotted across the Columbia River into Washington near Archer Mountain. Heavy smoke prevented the deployment of air assets until the wind changed several days later. Colder temperatures brought higher humidity, and the fire growth slowed considerably.
From the onset, Interstate 84 was closed in both directions from Troutdale to Hood River. Both eastbound and westbound lanes are now open. The Gorge scenic highway is also closed and severely damaged. Several Level 3 (Go!) evacuations were carried out, and many structures were demolished.
To date, the Eagle Creek Fire is more than 48,000 acres and is 46 percent contained.
Most Oregon and Washington fires have been subdued at this date. Cool, wet weather came to the aid the men and women working the fire lines to contain fires. The following list will change dramatically as more rain stretches across our region.
Unfortunately, those in and around Napa/Sonoma, California, are experiencing the perfect storm. More that 17 separate fires have torched over 115,000 acres, destroying 2,000 structures, including wineries, homes and resorts. Recorded deaths from the fires is at 15, with more than a 100 hospitalized with numbers likely to rise.
Eagle Creek Fire
Chetco Bar Fire
Diamond Creek Fire
Location: 27 NNW of Winthrop WA
Acres: 127,498 Cause: Under Investigation
High Cascades Complex
Location: 9 miles NE Prospect Acres: 27,460 Cause: Under Investigation
Umpqua North Complex:
Location: 50 miles E of Roseburg
Acres 43,140 Cause: Unknown
Horse Creek Complex
Location: Willamette National Forest
Acres: 42,489 Cause: Unknown
Location: Willamette National Forest Acres: 10,220 Cause: Lightning
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!
(Talkback - TWfirecolumn@gmail.com)
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC)
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture/USFS
On the Cover
Photo taken by Lindsay R. Mohlere at the Iron Triangle operation in John Day, Oregon
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