Bootleg Fire in Oregon

An early photograph of the Bootleg Fire in Oregon. As of Friday morning, July 23, the fire had burned more than 400,000 acres and was only 40 percent contained. Photo by Inciweb.

As wildfires rage across the West, members of the Bipartisan Wildfire Caucus held a press briefing earlier this month on efforts being made and those needed to fight wildfires.

The caucus called for more funding to the U.S. Forest Service, additional rapid deployment of tankers and firefighting tools and the need for proactive forest management on the ground.

“We are having fire years instead of fire seasons,” said Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO-2). “And we know there is a lot of time left this year for wildfires.”

Neguse, who co-chairs the caucus along with Rep. John Curtis (R-UT-3) were joined by Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA-3) and Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA-1) for the discussion.

Garamendi concurred with Neguse, stating it’s “going to be worse this year than last year,” and along with other caucus members, said years-long neglect of forest management has created a difficult situation for agencies to get on top of fuels.

“We have to do it prudently, fiscally responsibly, but I don’t think we can overdo anything in our preparedness, having equipment ready, the work we need to do in the forest ahead of fire, during fire and after fire,” LaMalfa said.

LaMalfa stated for these changes to occur, it requires cooperation from organizations and communities, environmental groups who have pushed back against fuels mitigation projects in the past and help from private entities to fund the work that needs to be done.

Curtis pointed out that one of the greatest difficulties in tackling wildfire risk is the patchwork of agencies and jurisdictions coupled with multiple types of landowners getting together on the same page to manage forests responsibly.

“What I see, and what we all see, is this patchwork of government policies that span different agencies,” Curtis said. “That’s overlapped with public land ownership, federal land ownership, private land ownership; you can see the difficulty establishing a policy that reaches across all of these different jurisdictions.”

Curtis and fellow caucus member Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ-1) introduced the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission Act of 2021 to establish a commission of federal and non-federal stakeholders “to study and recommend fire prevention, mitigation, management, and rehabilitation policies for forests and grasslands.”

“One of the intents of this bill is to bring the experts to the table to advise us in Congress and help us understand how we can better navigate and come up with one policy,” Curtis said.

Curtis, along with other members of the caucus, sent a letter in April to the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, asking for “more robust” funding in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill that will support “improved wildfire preparedness, mitigation, and response across the United States.”

“This includes the urgent need to increase the pace and scale of hazardous fuels management and forest restoration; improve ecosystem health; reduce the risk of severe flooding and erosion in forests after fire; protect critical watersheds; and bolster support for the wildland firefighting workforce,” the letter read.

The caucus also discussed the urgency of those living in the urban-wildlife interface to be prepared for disaster.

“People that are living in the wildlands or on the urban-wildland interface need to be prepared,” Garamendi, who was previously insurance commissioner for California, said. “They need to prepare their home, their structure. They’ve got to have a clearing around their home. All those things we’ve been told, we need to do it. When you’re told to evacuate, do evacuate.”

The caucus acknowledged there is much work to be done and it requires a bipartisan effort. As Neguse stated, “Our fire crews and ultimately our communities are counting on us to provide needed resources and investments.”

“[There’s] certainly much more for us to do but we will continue to work together to address what is clearly a crisis in the western United States,” Neguse said. “It’s a wake-up call to our communities, our states, and certainly for policymakers, and there is incredible urgency to get something done on this issue.” — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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