Washington Examiner: Senators burning for big fixes to wildfire problems

After a wildfire season that burned up 9.4 million acres and cost taxpayers about $4.2 billion, lawmakers want a comprehensive solution to the budget and management problems that are fanning the fires.

In the third hearing about the 2015 wildfire season held by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said her state and other western states cannot endure many more fire seasons like 2015, which took the lives of three firefighters in Washington state.

At one point this year, 200 fires were burning in Murkowski’s home state. Alaska accounted for 54 percent of the land area burned by wildfires in 2015, five million acres, which is roughly the size of Connecticut.

The federal government spent $2.1 billion fighting fires during 2015 and wildfire management cost $4.2 billion overall, she said. That can’t continue, according to Murkowski.

“Wildfire suppression and its escalating costs are economically, ecologically and socially unsustainable,” she said, “and the 2015 fire season underscores that point.”

Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., committed to working together on bipartisan legislation to better fund wildlife suppression, end the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of borrowing from other parts of its budget to fight fires, and improving efficiency among the various agencies that fight wildfires.

The senators also want to increase community preparedness, invest in prescribed burns and forest thinning to give wildfires less potential fuel, better use technology to fight the fires and limit the paperwork necessary to work on new projects.

Cantwell said there’s real urgency for legislation to come together.

“We do not want to face the 2016 fire season without better tools, without better processes, without better operations to help our communities and help our states,” she said.

Federal, state and local officials appeared before the committee to talk about their experiences in the 2015 fire season, including a deadly Okanogan Complex fire in August that killed Thomas Zbyzewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler.

The state and local officials complained that there is too much bureaucracy when it comes to fighting fires.

Chief Mike Burnett, of Chelan County Fire District 1 in Washington, said he would sometimes respond to a newly lit wildfire and have to figure out if it was on state, local or federal land. It would be up to other people to determine whose land the fire was on and whose land it was threatening before it could be fought. Burnett said local chiefs need to be empowered to make quicker decisions.

“The use of aviation resources early on can keep a small fire from becoming a large fire,” he added.

Richard Zerkel, president of Alaska-based Lynden Air Cargo, said aviation tankers are not being used as well as they could.

“This double standard resulted in the most capable and safety firefighting aircraft in the world being deployed elsewhere,” Zerkel said, “while an unregulated, unqualified and expensive government aircraft fought fires in our country.”

Hearing stories of the red tape the officials had to jump through to effectively fight wildfires frustrated Murkowski and other senators.

“The fire doesn’t care whose land it is,” Murkowski said. “The fire is going to go where it’s going to go. Why can’t we do a better job of this interagency coordination?”

Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said he saw what wildfires can do in Glacier National Park this summer when a massive wildfire burned vast swaths of the park.

“I’m tired of talking about this. I want to see action out of Congress, we have to do something,” he said.