USDA chief Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Thursday told a score of lawmakers, mostly from Western states, to prepare for what could be another record-setting wildfire season.
“2017 was the most devastating year for wildfires in history,” Perdue told the group, gathered in a crowded room at USDA headquarters on the National Mall, and officials said this year may be even worse.
Interim Forest Service chief Vicki Christiansen said wildfires this year have already charred more than 1.3 million acres of public and private lands, and the most dangerous months for wildfires are still to come. Last year, wildfires ravaged more than 10 million acres in all, with some $2.9 billion in federal taxpayer funds – the most ever – going into the suppression effort. Even more costly, Zinke and Perdue said, was the loss of 14 firefighters who died while battling the conflagrations.
Both Perdue and Zinke praised Congress for including a fix to a long-standing firefighting funding problem in the omnibus spending bill that President Trump signed into law earlier this year. The bill earmarks more than $20 billion over 10 years for an emergency fund that could be tapped when firefighting budgets are depleted.
In the past, the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to raid non-fire accounts to pay for firefighting costs, depleting funds needed for other fire-prevention work including timber management and prescribed burnings. Perdue in the past has said that firefighting costs were eating up 55 percent of USFS budget.
While the lawmakers present at the meeting generally were in favor of the funding fix, many expressed concerns about the lack of progress in government efforts to remove the dead and dying timber that is fueling most of the wildfires.
Rep. Jim Costa said there’s a backlog of some 100 million dead trees that need to be removed in his home state of California, which has been hurt badly by wildfires. The Democrat blamed the backlog on “lack of good forest management.”
Zinke agreed that the government needs to be more aggressive in dealing with the fire-fighting menace.
“This is not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue,” Zinke said. “It’s a red, white and blue issue.”
Perdue and Zinke concluded yesterday’s meeting by signing a memorandum pledging that the departments will continue to cooperate with each other and to use the latest technology, including the use of unmanned aircraft systems, “to promote firefighter safety, support planning and protect communities.”
Click here to see a list of the lawmakers attending Tuesday’s meeting the 2018 wildfire season.
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