Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue today unveiled a new strategy for managing catastrophic wildfires that emphasizes greater cooperation with states to identify priorities for targeted treatment in areas with the highest payoffs.

Speaking at the U.S. Capitol with a handful of U.S. senators pledging their support, Perdue noted that he’d visited California earlier this week and seen first-hand the devastation that wildfires of unprecedented fury had inflicted on western communities.

“We commit to work more closely with the states to reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires,” Perdue promised. “We commit to strengthening the stewardship of public and private lands. This report outlines our strategy and intent to help one another prevent wildfire from reaching this level.”

A key component of the 24-page report – Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-based Investment Strategy – is to prioritize decisions on forest treatments in direct coordination with states using the most advanced science tools, USDA said in a news release. This allows the U.S. Forest Service – an agency within USDA -- to increase the scope and scale of critical forest treatments, including the removal of dead trees and underbrush, that protect communities and create resilient forests.

USDA said the Forest Service will be able to build upon new authorities created by the 2018 omnibus spending bill that include categorical exclusions for land treatments to improve forest conditions, new road maintenance authorities and longer stewardship contracting in strategic areas. USFS will also continue cutting red tape to make timber sale contracts more flexible, the department said.

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Interim USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen, who stood with Perdue in unveiling the strategy, said the challenges posed by today’s wildfires require a new approach.

“This year Congress has given us new opportunities to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with state leaders to identify land management priorities that include mitigating wildfire risks,” she said.

Joining Perdue at today’s event were Democratic Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Maria Cantwell of Washington and Republicans Steve Daines of Montana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who said the new strategy was “exactly what we need at this point in time.”

Murkowski said smoke from the wildfires in the lower 48 could be tasted all the way up in her home state. Indeed, as the senator spoke the Washington Post was reporting that high altitude winds were carrying smoke from the fires 3,000 miles into the Mid-Atlantic region and over the nation’s capital.

In the West, Wyden said this new breed of wildfires, which are “bigger, hotter and more powerful” than their predecessors, was creating “clean air refugees” – people who were “literally traipsing from place to place just trying to find breathable air.”

Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association, said that WGA supports the idea of better involvement of states in the process. However, he said, "as with all good concepts ... the devil is in the details."  Ogsbury, who was in attendance at the briefing, said "WGA pledges to roll up its sleeves and work with the Department to help develop those details and operationalize a shared stewardship paradigm.”

George Geissler, president of the National Association of State Foresters and state forester of Washington, also attended the briefing and endorsed the USDA plan.

"This new approach will have state forestry agencies and the USDA Forest Service working together as we should, shoulder-to-shoulder, to manage wildfire," Geissler said in a release.

Last year, federal agencies spent $2.9 billion to suppress wildfires across the nation. Those fires charred more than 10 million acres, destroyed more than 8,000 residences and resulted in the deaths of dozens of Americans, including 14 wildland firefighters. Officials say this year could be even more destructive. The National Interagency Fire Center says that as of Aug. 16, 101 large fires are burning across the country, mostly in Western states. Since Jan. 1, nearly 41,000 fires had scorched some 5.7 million acres.

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