Vilsack says Congress should step up to put out wildfires

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, May 17, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the Forest Service and the Interior Department have “done just about everything we can do” to properly fund the forest management that prevents catastrophic fires - now it's Congress' turn to step up to the plate.

“Only Congress can fix it,” Vilsack told reporters on Tuesday. “Congress has been left off the hook. Congress has to do its work. Everyone else is working hard.”

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The 2015 wildfire season set records for length, acres burned and destruction reaped. Ten million acres were burned, seven firefighters were killed, 4,500 homes were damaged or destroyed and $2.6 billion was spent trying to control the flames.

According to Vilsack, this year's fire season has started off with a bang: about 500 percent more acres have already burned this year compared to this time last year.

“Southern California, the Great Basin in Nevada, portions of the southwest, and even Florida and Hawaii are particularly vulnerable this year” to wildfire, he continued.  In California, more than 40 million trees are standing dead - 29 million of which died in 2015.

That's “40 million opportunities for a very hazardous fire,” Vilsack said. “Congress must take action now to ensure that we, and, ultimately the firefighters we ask so much of, have the resources to do the restoration and wildfire prevention work necessary to keep our forests healthy.”

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in a release after the call that “the job of fighting wildfires has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and development within Wildland-Urban Interface areas.”

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For instance, fire seasons are on average 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and the average number of annual acres burned has doubled since 1980. In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its total budget on fire suppression. Last year, it spent a record 52 percent of its budget fighting fires. To pay for the increase in fire suppression and planning, USDA has been forced to “fire borrow” - transfer funds from forest restoration projects to forest fire suppression projects.

“We must do what is necessary to ensure we have the resources to perform restoration and wildfire prevention work essential to keep our forests healthy,” Tidwell said. Over the last two years, $237 million was borrowed from these restoration programs.

Last December, Vilsack said he would not authorize the transfer of funds from restoration and resilience programs to fight fires this season. Congress has yet to move legislation that would designate the worst of wildfires as natural disasters or allocate more funding to the Forest Service, as Vilsack has requested.

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