Opinion

Don’t be fooled by our rare mild wildfire season

Firefighters and Washington National Guard soldiers work to extinguish hot spots on a hillside as they fight the First Creek Fire in August 2015, near Chelan. A record year of Washington wildfires in 2015 led to evacuated towns and destroyed houses.
Firefighters and Washington National Guard soldiers work to extinguish hot spots on a hillside as they fight the First Creek Fire in August 2015, near Chelan. A record year of Washington wildfires in 2015 led to evacuated towns and destroyed houses. Associated Press file

While Eastern Washington is still at risk of another wildfire, the wildfire season is now nearly over. On Sept. 20, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources lifted the burn ban for all counties west of the Cascades.

Nationwide this year, more than 44,000 wildfires have burned 4.8 million acres of land. And wildfires are still raging in Southern California, as the state is experiencing its driest period in almost 500 years and an especially destructive wildfire season with some fires consuming upwards of 128,000 acres of land.

Indeed, with each passing year, wildfires destroy more and more land, although this year in Washington, we saw much less damage than last year. In 2015, we suffered through a record-breaking season, during which 68,151 wildfires destroyed more than 10 million acres of land. That’s almost four times the typical number of acres lost to wildfires only a half century ago.

Climate change is one reason we have a growing number of wildfires. A less obvious reason is the decision-making of our lawmakers resulting in low wildfire-prevention funding at both the state and federal levels.

In the 1990s, the United States Forest Service spent 15 percent of its annual budget fighting wildfires. Today more than half the USFS budget goes to that purpose, a portion projected to grow to above 70 percent by 2025. Simply put, the USFS has not been allocated enough funds to keep up with the demand of wildfire prevention efforts.

In our state this year, lawmakers approved a supplemental budget that took $190 million out of the state’s emergency fund to cover the outstanding expenses from fighting last year’s wildfires. This adds to the $87 million spent by the state Department of Natural Resources from its emergency fire suppression budget for 2015. However, last year was an anomaly; the DNR budgeted, on average, $37 million for suppression efforts each year between 2006 and 2015.

It should be noted, though, that in the past three years, the actual expenditures from the emergency fire suppression budget have been above the 10-year average of $25 million, magnifying the wildfire problem in our state. And state lawmakers don’t want to continue backfilling the costs each year. They are left with a choice to either adequately fund wildfire prevention efforts from the start or continue raiding the state emergency fund, hoping the problem fixes itself.

Fortunately, congressional lawmakers are slowly attempting to improve financial resources for firefighting. House Resolution 167, known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, would treat wildfires like natural disasters. It would allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to submit a request for more money to fight wildfires when money is needed. Such additional aid would assist the USFS, enabling it to spend less on fighting fires and more on preventing them.

If approved, it is hoped that the House resolution would decrease the amount of emergency funds Washington and other states are forced to pay up each year.

While all the aforementioned proposals might help, nothing would have impact quite like a direct increase in the wildfire prevention budget at the state and federal levels.

So maybe Smokey the Bear should be pointing his finger at lawmakers: The power to prevent future wildfires from destroying our lands rests in their hands.

Sean Rojas of Frederickson is an avid hiker who enjoys camping and outdoor photography. He is a senior at the University of Washington Tacoma, majoring in business finance.

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