We need feds active in wildfire prevention.
As the country addresses the prevailing economic crisis, now is the time to invest in our nation's most vulnerable communities - in particular, those affected by the growing incidence of wildfires.
The effects of catastrophic wildfires are felt year-round - in the pocketbooks of taxpayers and in the jobs and revenue that are lost when commercial timber is destroyed and tourism declines. In November alone, three fires in southern California have cost the state more than $75 million and burned close to 900 homes. Nationally, our government is spending far more than it did a decade ago to suppress wildfires as more forests burn. In 2007, the federal government spent $1.4 billion as 9.3 million acres burned, as compared to $307 million spent and 1.3 million acres burned in 1998.
Wildfire - normally a healthy and important part of forested ecosystems - has become an increasing burden for households and communities across the country. And a growing body of scientific research illustrates that climate change will have a significant impact on wildfire in the future.
President-elect Barack Obama has recognized this problem. He promised during his campaign to invest in forest health and strategies to decrease the risk of wildfire to communities. His support will be needed for legislation that dedicates funds to fight the most severe wildfires and provides federal agencies with the financial resources necessary for public lands management and restoration.
But there is much that Obama will be able to do administratively to reduce the wildfire threats - by changing U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management priorities and how they do business.
Over the past decade, the federal government has sought to provide community assistance and catalyze local efforts to reduce wildfire risk through collaborative fire planning and fuels reduction programs, under efforts including the Clinton administration's National Fire Plan and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act during the Bush administration.
This integrated approach for reducing large-scale wildfires and their impacts is still appropriate. But what is missing is the appropriate level of federal engagement and public funding to make it succeed. A stronger agency role is needed in assisting communities to develop, implement and monitor local efforts to reduce hazardous fuels on public and private land. This calls for agency field-level participation and collaboration in local fire planning efforts. These efforts can be paired with business assistance programs to build and maintain local jobs to conduct fuels reduction and forest restoration projects.
The Obama administration can accomplish this by creating a system to ensure agency accountability and by funding these approaches.
Such a reformed approach to wildfire management should also provide opportunities to low-income and underserved rural communities that have thus far lacked the capacity to engage in wildfire preparedness activities. These communities may be at greater risk from the effects of a large-scale wildfire because they lack the financial, social and political resources to prepare for, respond to or recover from a disastrous event. Recognition of the disproportionate risk these communities face and dedicated resources can help ensure that even the most marginalized communities can develop and implement community-based fire plans, and thus be resilient in the face of wildfire.
There are many challenges facing the incoming Obama administration, yet we cannot underscore enough the importance of these proposed reforms to federal wildfire management to rural, resource-based communities. Community efforts will be successful only if the federal government, owner and manager of the surrounding forests, provides resources and is an active partner.
Kathy Lynn is associate director of resource innovations at the University of Oregon's Institute for a Sustainable Environment, and is part of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (www.sustainablenorthwest.org/rvcc/). The coalition promotes conservation-based approaches to the ecological and economic problems facing the West. Its recommendations to the transition team for the Obama administration can be found at change.gov/open_government/yourseatatthetable/P110/.