Treat wildfires like disasters — and fix the funding problem

Monday, 04 December 2017, 04:54:02 PM. UAF climate scientists tell us we can expect more wildfires in Alaska -- and we need to be prepared.

In Alaska, we were able to breathe easy this past summer. If rainy, at least it wasn't smoky for most of us. We were all painfully aware of the fires that swept through the Western U.S. and Canada. Families endured dense smoke in downtown Seattle. We watched in horror as the California fires consumed entire neighborhoods. One of my staff flew south to help his mother evacuate from her home as fires raged.

And fire is not a stranger to Alaska forests and neighborhoods. Those of us who have been around for a few years remember many smoky summers and fires that have burned homes and neighborhoods. Three years ago, fires swept through a number of properties owned by The Nature Conservancy with loss of several historic homestead cabins.

Unfortunately, as our climate changes, we can expect bigger, more frequent, and more intense fires across Alaska. Climate scientists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have predicted this trend and the fires are proving them right.

[Warming, fires, warming, fires: How tundra fires can create an unstoppable cycle]

As the U.S. fights wildfires across the country, the federal government is burning through money that could instead go toward making forests healthier — and less fire prone.

At a price tag of more than $2.4 billion so far, the government has spent more money fighting fires this year than in any other wildfire season on record. Fires have already burned more than 8.8 million acres this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and large fires are still blazing in many states, particularly in the West.

The Pitka Fork Fire burning 60 miles east of McGrath puts up smoke on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Matt Snyder/ Alaska Department of Natural Resources / Department of Forestry) The Pitka Fork Fire burning 60 miles east of McGrath puts up smoke on Tuesday, June 6, 2017. (Matt Snyder/ Alaska Department of Natural Resources / Department of Forestry)

Not all wildfires are bad or need to be put out, especially in Alaska where many fires burn in remote areas. When fires are part of a forest's natural cycle, they can actually help plants and animals. Fires have always been a part of the natural cycle for the boreal forests of Interior Alaska.

But when conditions are warmer and drier, when branches and moss become tinder dry, fires grow bigger and hotter. They become megafires that destroy homes and threaten human lives.

Across the country firefighting costs are going up year after year. This year's fire season has reignited a discussion in Congress over how to pay for firefighting.

[Backfiring pickup starts 'insane' string of Mat-Su wildfires]

As legislators consider additional disaster relief aid in response to the hurricanes that recently devastated parts of the U.S. and Caribbean, lawmakers should also provide further funding for fire suppression and permanently change the way the U.S. pays to fight wildfires. Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are and make disaster funding accessible for federal firefighting efforts.

When the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior do their annual budgeting, they have to plan for costs based on past fire seasons. But each new season is proving to be anything but average. For example, more than 52,000 fires have burned across the U.S. so far this year — greater than each of the last five years for that same period.

As fire suppression takes up more and more of the agencies' funds, they are borrowing money from programs like recreation and forest health to make up budget shortfalls. But it's that conservation work — such as restoring forests and removing brush — that helps reduce the risk of fire in the first place.

We need to break out of this cycle — and Congress holds the keys to a solution. We need to change how we fund firefighting. Both chambers of Congress are currently considering legislation that would do just that. The Senate this fall introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the House of Representatives introduced a similar bill this summer. The Senate also added a fire-funding solution to a flood insurance bill.

At The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, we think these comprehensive congressional approaches are a great idea. And we've been collaborating with a broad coalition — ranging from sportsmen's groups to other environmental organizations — to show the bipartisan support for a wildfire funding fix.

We know that firefighting costs are going to continue to rise. And under the government's current funding structure, the U.S. can't keep up.

So it's critical for Congress to pass a solution to this problem. We need to not only fight megafires, but also keep our forests healthy to help prevent those damaging fires from happening in the first place — and protect our nation's land, property and people.

Please reach out to Alaska's congressional delegation and encourage them to support fire funding legislation. Go to http://bit.ly/wildfirefix.

Rand Hagenstein is executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com. 

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