By Lindsay R. Mohlere
Alot has been happening on the federal level since President Biden signed the new infrastructure legislation. Among other things, the administration and Forest Service have been lauding the “pivot” in strategy to reduce wildfire risk on more than 20 million acres of national forests in the West.
Called the Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests Act, the legislation is promoted as a paradigm shift in forest management.
The plan calls for a 10-year, $50 billion strategy that will double the ability of the Forest Service to reduce fuel loads by pruning and thinning out trees and other vegetation, as well as using controlled burns to reduce flammable material that serves as kindling for mega fires and destruction.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said a combination of tree thinning and prescribed fire will make the forests healthier in the long run while reducing the threat to public safety. The work will begin this year.
The plan will focus on key fireshed areas of 250,000 acres at risk of large-scale fires in the West where out-of-control blazes have destroyed entire neighborhoods and, as fire intensity has increased, entire communities.
It looks like the devastation and tragedies of the 2021 fire season served as a wake-up call to those who wield the power. Huge chunks of money are now breaking loose from the federal piggybank and finding the way to the states.
The question is, will this pivot make a difference?
In 2003, the Bush administration set forth the Healthy Forest Initiative, which was touted as the grand solution to helping the forests. It tanked because the Mr. Magoo legal beagles slammed the act and torched the most important elements of the legislation with lawsuits.
Even now, with the new paradigm getting ready to throw money around like baseballs in a batting cage, wrinkles are starting to appear.
The billions are welcomed, but will it change the culture of the Forest Service and quiet the truckloads of litigation-happy activist groups to allow the money to be spent wisely?
Mmmmmm. Good question. Only time will tell.
Fires Burn into the National Forest
A surprising notification showed up in the in-box the other day that bears passing along.
Research led by Oregon State University shows that fires are more likely to burn their way into national forests than out of them.
Challenging the common belief that most destructive wildfires start on public land before spreading to private land and communities, the study demonstrated that human ignitions on private land drive cross-boundary wildfires.
Researchers looked at 22,000 fires and found that those wildfires crossing jurisdictional boundaries are primarily caused by people on private property. With the dramatic expansion of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), it’s a no-brainer that ignitions caused by human and energy infrastructure would be the dominant cause of fire. Human development in and around wildlands expanded by 41 percent between 1990 and 2010, making the WUI the fastest growing land-use type in the U.S. Increased development has resulted in both more risk and more loss.
The study states: “Our findings do not support the assertion that a majority of the most destructive fires spread from USFS-managed wildlands to communities. Broad-scale statistical modeling of cross-boundary ignitions and area burned provided evidence that human development patterns are strongly associated with cross-boundary fire activity.”
Check out the study at www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-06002-3.
News from the Fireline
Grayback Forestry of Grants Pass was the big winner along with seven other wildland firefighting outfits that were awarded U.S. Forest Service contracts over the next five years valued at more than half a billion dollars.
Grayback scored the largest share of the five-year deal at $180 million, while the remaining seven companies split the awards with $60 million going to Pacific Oasis of Ashland, and $40 million landing at Diamond Fire of Sutherlin. The remaining $360 million will be divided among firefighting outfits in Redmond, Salem, Philomath, Merrill, and Independence.
The contracts will help the firefighting teams keep up to date on the tools, training, and support needed to keep them safe and equipped.
Support Tim’s Act
In an effort to support and secure one of the many promises made by the new infrastructure bill (increased pay), the Tim Hart Wildland Firefighter Classification and Pay Parity Act (H.R. 5631) is finding its way through the hallowed halls. Sponsored by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), Rep. Kim Schrier (D-OR), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), and other western representatives, the bill will secure funding for a sustainable workforce.
Named after Wyoming smokejumper Tim Hart who died fighting fire last summer, the bill will fill the gaps left by the infrastructure bill. Last action on the bill was in November when it was referred to the Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry.
Don’t let this bill fall through the cracks or get buried in committee. Support a living wage for federal wildland firefighters. Write your congressmen today.
The Battle for RDA
The River Democracy Act (RDA), a new piece of legislation proposed by Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, is currently making its way through Congress and stirring up a dogfight two years after the bill began a public nomination and compromise process in 2020.
Needless to say, the bill’s proponents have a lot to growl about.
RDA would add an additional 4700 miles of Oregon’s streams to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968.
In 2020, Senators Wyden and Merkley began a public nomination process to build consensus. More than 2,500 Oregonians participated in a statewide public effort and nominated 15,000 miles of streams along federal lands to be included in the act.
The act would require comprehensive land-use management practices to protect streams, reduce catastrophic wildfire risks, and protect endangered species and native species that are culturally significant to tribes.
The whole process took two years, and the RDA team thought they had hit a homerun for adding the acreage to the act.
However, no such luck. A number of rural county commissioners and the timber lobby, while late to the table, bit down on the proposal expressing concern that the RDA would increase logging and grazing restrictions and do more harm than good when it comes to wildfire prevention.
In a January 11 speech to Congress, Oregon Rep. Cliff Bentz summed it up. “If passed, this bill would label some 4,700 miles of Oregon rivers, creeks, and streams as ‘Wild and Scenic,’ although a more appropriate phrase would be: ‘just waiting to be burned and ruined.’”
Appears the battle lines have been drawn and the gauntlet thrown. Standby for the usual rumble from the usual suspects but be ready to run for cover.
That’s a wrap.
Talk back at twfirecolumn @gmail.com.
Stay safe out there.
(Source: USDA, Wildland Firefighter, OPB, Wildfire Today, WSJ, Daily Yonder, USFS)
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