Even as much of the West continues to deal with historic rains and snowfall, planning for this year’s fire season is well underway. Soon, the United States Forest Service will release guidance to its offices and firefighters regarding how best to approach the 2023 fire season. With over 3.2 million forested acres of Forest Service land burned since 2020, it is critical the Forest Service takes swift action to address current conditions and adjust firefighting tactics to match.

As Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus and a Member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, we are deeply concerned about the devastating impact catastrophic wildfires have on our rural communities. Last month, the Western Caucus hosted a policy forum to hear firsthand from individuals who have suffered from these wildfires that have become more destructive, combined with longer and more intense firefighting seasons. 

In Washington, the largest wildfire ever recorded occurred just two years ago, wiping out over 410,000 acres. In Alaska, the largest wildfire (Taylor Complex – 2004), largest tundra wildfire (Anaktuvuk River Fire – 2007), and the most expensive fire suppression (Swan Lake – 2019) in recorded history have occurred, all in the last two decades. 

As we prepare for the next fire season, the Forest Service should prioritize the initial attack on wildfires. This will require acting quickly and decisively and fighting fires around the clock to match the increased public risk. The extraordinary winter rain and snowfall means by the time summer rolls around, fires will have more low, brushy vegetation to feed on—kindling material for what could become a catastrophic forest fire if not extinguished quickly.

Additionally, the Forest Service should emphasize wildfire response strategies that protect neighboring communities and lands, and prioritize protecting public and firefighter safety.

In order to effectively implement these measures, the Forest Service must encourage meaningful coordination among federal, state, and tribal partners, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector to overcome equipment and personnel limitations. This will require a collaborative approach to planning and implementing firefighting strategies, as well as ongoing communication and coordination to ensure resources are deployed effectively and efficiently. In addition, it is imperative for Forest Service to continue ramping up staffing efforts to ensure they have enough firefighters to be effective.

Finally, the Forest Service must communicate openly and frequently with communities, tribes, and landowners impacted by fire response activities, and directly engage these communities in planning, operations meetings, and decision-making. This will help to build trust and confidence in the Forest Service’s approach to firefighting and ensure communities are prepared and informed about how best to protect themselves and their property in the event of a wildfire.

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The Forest Service plays a critical role in addressing the challenges posed by the 2023 fire season. By providing clear guidance for the 2023 season to the men and women who fight on the front lines and prioritizing the initial attack on wildfires, the Forest Service can help minimize the impact of wildfires on neighboring communities and lands. The Forest Service can stretch limited resources by encouraging meaningful coordination among partners, impacted communities, and the private sector. Even though hot, windy and dry conditions seem months away, the time to act is now.

Dan Newhouse, a Republican, represents Washington’s 4th Congressional District and is Chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of 100 Members of Congress who advocate for rural America.

Mary Peltola represents Alaska at large in Congress and is a member of the Committee on Natural Resources and Transportation & Infrastructure Committee.

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