Soaring temperatures, high winds and widespread lightning strikes — and, in some cases, arson — have sparked wildfires that have charred more than 5.9 million acres in the United States this summer, much of it in the West.
Massive wildfires in Western headwaters forests and lands can create significant impacts to downstream water uses. The two elements of water quality and quantity are the pillars upon which ecosystems, cities, ranches and farms stand. Water in the West is the single element without which our country’s high-quality food and fiber would cease to exist.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom has said the series of wildfires ripping through his state should be proof to “climate deniers” that climate change is happening before their eyes. Others believe decades of fire suppression, expanding development and inactive forest management — especially on federal forestlands — are the real culprits.
There are other factors to consider as well. We have the best firefighting capacity in the world, but when every firefighter and resource is deployed, commanders must triage. We won’t know for a while which fires could have been better controlled if more resources were available.
It’s complicated. Take fuel, for example. A dry ecosystem with low fuel loads can tolerate fire. However, inactive management on federal lands — coupled with 100 years of fire suppression — is a different story.
The federal government must prioritize actions that would implement necessary forest management projects on federal lands. Those projects will reduce the existential threat posed by wildfires to our headwaters lands and to the water supplies of the West. Fortunately, legislative efforts are underway to this end.
The Family Farm Alliance is on record for supporting S. 4431, the bipartisan Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act of 2020, sponsored by Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Steve Daines, R-Mont.
This bill would direct the U.S. Forest Service to complete three landscape-level, collaborative projects proposed by governors to decrease the risk of wildfire. Eligible activities would include mechanical thinning, slash and ladder fuel reduction, and controlled burns used to improve wildlife habitat, watershed quality and landscape health.
Proposed management projects would be submitted by governors to USDA. Selected projects would be expedited through a streamlined process to ensure timely analyses, so work can be done quickly. The bill would simplify efforts to reduce fuel loads near USFS trails, roads and transmission lines, for areas less than 3,000 acres in size.
Finally, the bill would allow for hazard mitigation grants to be used for the installation of fire-resistant wires, and the burial of transmission wires to decrease the likelihood of wildfire ignition through electrical infrastructure. The bill would also create a new grant program to facilitate the removal and transportation of woody biomass to conversion facilities.
Reducing the threat of wildfire to communities and watersheds is a critical issue in the West. The Emergency Wildfire and Public Safety Act would help advance necessary forest management projects in a timely, collaborative manner while preventing catastrophic wildfires.
Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance.