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Federal Government Blazes Ahead On Comprehensive Fire Management Plan

Wildfire seasons in many parts of Oregon and the rest of the West are getting hotter and longer.
Wildfire seasons in many parts of Oregon and the rest of the West are getting hotter and longer.

A new national strategy for preventing and fighting wildfires has been announced by the federal government in response to increasingly costly firefighting seasons in the West.

Rather than waiting to address wildfires until after they ignite, the new strategy emphasizes restoring forests and rangelands while stabilizing funding.

The National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy was announced Wednesday by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and Mike Boots of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

He noted the increasingly catastrophic nature of recent wildfires. In the last 10 years, the U.S. Forest Service has seen the cost of fire management grow from 13 to 40 percent of the agency’s budget, Vilsack said.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell described the new document as a strategic roadmap that reaches across “federal, tribal, state and local governments, and with our NGO partners, to effectively manage landscapes.”

Jewell said current short-term budgets provide very little certainty and predictability.

Drawing on her private sector experience as the former head of Recreation Equipment Inc., she said budgets need to be solidified and front-loaded — given how expensive recent catastrophic fires have been.

The new firefighting strategy would allow a different funding stream for the most severe fires, rather than pulling it from existing budgets or even borrowing from other agencies.

Jewell emphasized that the most severe 1 percent of fires has cost the government 30 percent of its total firefighting budget.

Jewell commended Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., for their work seeking congressional solutions to improve fire management and related budgets.

"Senator Wyden applauds this work by diverse partners to address the challenges of wild land fire," said Wyden press secretary Tom Towslee. "It shows what can be accomplished when stakeholders from the federal government, state and private lands are willing to work together."

Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff Mike Boots said President Barack Obama also recognizes that climate change is contributing to increased drought and longer fire seasons, especially in the western United States.

He said the new plan includes restoration funding for forests and rangelands to make natural areas and communities less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire.

Boots added that the president formed regional taskforces of state, local and tribal leaders to gain feedback on how communities and public lands could become more resilient to wildfire.

Interior officials say the new comprehensive fire management plan was called for by Congress via the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act of 2009.

Although the president’s proposed budget has yet to be approved by the House and Senate, the fire management plan is expected to serve as a guide for congressional budget writers.

As a drought-heavy spring turns the corner toward another fire season, regional subgroups will continue meeting to discuss fire management needs in their area.

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Devan Schwartz