Sen. Boxer and Feinstein seek right solutions on wildfire

Sep 4, 2009

The wildfires in California are a stark reminder about the need for long-term fire solutions that protect the entire state.

The Wilderness Society, a leading advocate for more sound wildfire management policies, is asking your editorial writers to seize the moment and write about lessons we can draw from the current blazes: We should heed Sen. Barbara Boxer’s call for more funding for the agencies charged with suppressing fires, and we should support Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to pass a bill that would help communities protect themselves.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich told the Associated Press this week that environmental protections are to blame for the severity of the fires. This is simply wrong.

Safety is always the number one priority when it comes to fire. There is widespread support in the conservation community for the increased use of controlled burns to clear out fuels that can lead to larger fires later. We strongly support the use of controlled burns by the Forest Service and other agencies in areas where they can be safely administered. These burns help protect people and property, restore forests, and save taxpayer dollars. By clearing out fuels, controlled burns create a buffer between forests and homes and lessen the need for firefighters to risk their lives. They also give nature a boost by regenerating soils and plants that wildlife need. It’s also cheaper to burn fuels out of the way than cut them out.

However, in the chaparral outside Los Angeles, conditions are not conducive to controlled burns. In the steep, inaccessible canyons of the Angeles National Forest, landscape-scale fuel reduction is difficult if not impossible and very expensive. Instead, individual homeowners need guidance and assistance to create defensible space surrounding homes that will reduce the risk to lives and property from wildfire.

We encourage all political leaders to join the conservation community – and U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer -- in calling on Congress to invest more funding in the range of fuels reduction efforts – including controlled burns – that reduce the threats wildfires pose.

While the percentage of the budget the Forest Service (the primary agency responsible for suppressing fires) spends on suppression continues to increase – up to nearly 50 percent – its budget has remained flat. We simply have to increase the overall budget of the Forest Service so that other vital programs that Americans love don’t have to suffer. These include wildlife habitat management, state fire assistance, and maintenance and upkeep for trails, roads, and campgrounds, and hazardous fuels reduction.

The Obama administration is trying to move public policy in the right direction by proposing a contingency reserve account that would put more money into an account used for fire suppression.

In Congress, Sen. Boxer should be commended for co-sponsoring the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, a bill slowly working its way through the halls of Congress that could provide a permanent, dedicated account for large-scale fires. This would prevent the frequent need for Congress to take money away from other vital programs and services – including the very kinds of fuels reduction efforts that would make California safer – to cover suppression costs.

Sen. Feinstein is also working hard and deserves support for the Fire-Safe Communities Act that would give local communities a variety of tools and resources they need to better defend themselves against the threats posed by wildfires. She should additionally be commended for her role in appropriating increased funding for suppression next year.

By focusing on long term and well-tested solutions to wildfire, your editorials can provide leadership and support to those political leaders who have been working on fire issues for years, making life safer for everyone in California.