Putting the Wrap on 2021

By Lindsay Mohlere

The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports that 58,288 wildfires burned 7,819,070 acres across the United States in 2021. The number of acres burned is slightly above the 10-year average of 7,410,408 acres. California’s Dixie fire — the largest wildfire of 2021 — burned more than 960,000 acres before being contained.

There’s no doubt that wildfire activity is becoming more extreme. Wildfire season is starting earlier in the spring and lasting longer into the fall. Fire season is now a year-round designation. Above-normal fire activity periods last about 75 days longer than 40 years ago.

Most agencies are working to shift away from a predominantly seasonal firefighting force to fulltime crews. With the increased funding for wildfire in the new legislation, firefighters will be actual employees and afforded a good bump to a living wage, benefits, and health insurance.

There were 24 unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) incursions in 2021. Firefighting efforts were shut down or delayed 17 times in 2021.

Nationwide, sadly, more than 40 wildland firefighters died in 2021, including 15 who were on duty.

Finally, Some Good News

As 2021 fades into the distance, we are now learning what slices of the massive bi-partisan $3 billion infrastructure pie will be applied to combating the nation’s wildfire crisis and improving resilience across America’s landscape.

To begin with, the Bureau of Reclamation released the spending plan for the $210 million provided in the Extending Government Funding and Delivering Emergency Assistance Act (P.L. 117-43). The legislation provides the Bureau of Reclamation with $200 million to address drought conditions throughout the West, as well as $10 million for fire remediation and suppression emergency assistance related to wildfires.

The Klamath Basin in Oregon/California, along with California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Basin, will take the biggest bite. This round of funding will help protect those communities and ecosystems in the short term, while the bureaucrats leverage the resources in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build long-term water resilience in the backdrop of climate change across the entire West.

While most of the cash goes to hydrologic activities, $10 million is set aside for fire remediation and suppression emergency assistance activities related to wildfires. The Bureau of Reclamation’s fire remediation and suppression activities include infrastructure repairs, debris removal, fire suppression, and water quality efforts, as well as risk prevention and future fire mitigation efforts such as fuels reduction and cleanup activities.

firebreakShow Me the Money

Oregon U.S. Senators Wyden and Merkley have nabbed $50 million in funds from FEMA for debris removal and powerline repair in the Santiam Canyon for recovery from the devastating 2020 Labor Day fires. An estimated 24,000 acres were within the perimeters of the Beachie Creek, Lionshead, and Riverside fires, three massive blazes that tore through the Santiam Canyon last year. Of those 24,000 acres, a little more than 16,000 acres actually burned in the fires, according to ODF.

Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) will receive $44.68 million for commercial property debris removal from the Labor Day wildfires. The wildfires damaged an estimated 1,536 commercial properties in the fires. The structures include commercial mobile home parks, rental properties, recreational vehicle parks, and local business properties that ODOT will continue working to clear of debris and ash.

Consumers Power Inc., which provides electric services to the Santiam Canyon, will receive $4.68 million for repairing powerlines damaged in the Labor Day Fires of 2020, including replacing wooden poles with fiberglass, replacing damaged transformers, and undergrounding powerlines where possible.

More on Santiam

Seems like the environmental factions that circle the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Forest Service like vultures begin to foam at the mouth whenever they hear a chainsaw start up.

In April 2021, seven environmental groups filed a lawsuit to stop post-fire logging in the Santiam Canyon. The suit asked the circuit court to stop ODF from current logging and bar it from moving forward with timber sales and hazard tree removal across 3,000 acres of state forest torched by the fires around the Santiam Canyon.

Fortunately, in May, the judge tossed the suit because he found that it was unlikely to prevail in court.

State forestry officials hailed the decision. “ODF’s balanced approach will provide much-needed revenue for the communities hit hardest by 2020’s fires and keep the Santiam State Forest on track towards long-term recovery,” the agency said in a statement. 

Unfortunately, as we rumble into 2022, frivolous lawsuits by the greenies are not going to go away. Salvage logging projects make sense for forest health and safety. However, slugging it out with every Tom, Dick, and Harry environmental group is a waste of precious time and only adds insult to injury.

Wildland Fire Mitigation and
Management Commission

In other good news, the Big Three — the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Homeland Security Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — have jointly established a new Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission.

The basic task of the commission is to recommend federal policies and strategies to effectively prevent, mitigate, suppress, and manage wildland fires, including rehabilitation of land affected by wildfires. This is a combined effort with representation from federal, state, Tribal, county, and municipal governments as well as non-governmental stakeholders. The final product, a report to Congress with practical policy recommendations, will be delivered one year from the first meeting.

The commission will also outline a strategy to cost effectively meet aerial firefighting equipment needs through 2030.

Hopefully this gig will get off the ground and not get mired in the all too regular nitpicks and ankle biting commonly seen in government at every level.

It’s great our federal dudes finally got off the dime and passed an infrastructure bill that four different administrations couldn’t get done. It offers many solutions to the problems we have facing us across the nation. Whether they can get legs under it and get moving in 2022 remains to be seen.

That’s a wrap.

Talk back at twfirecolumn

Stay safe out there.

(Source: USDA, Wildland Firefighter, Bloomberg, Wildfire Today, WSJ, NBC, Statesmans Journal)

TimberWest November/December 2013
January/February 2022

Photo taken by Andrea Watts of Pacific Logging and Processing

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