In Our View: Wildfire Conundrum

Sapping fire-prevention funds to fight blazes compounds problem in long term

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While burning 400 square miles in north-central Washington and staking a place as the largest wildfire in state history, the Carlton Complex of fires also has reinforced the need for changes in how the federal government battles such blazes.

For years, federal agencies have been forced to dip into fire-prevention funds in order to suppress wildfires, an endeavor that is becoming increasingly costly. This creates a cycle in which fire-prevention activities are reduced, which means that the fire season is more expensive, which means that fewer prevention funds are available … around and around it goes, with no end in sight. According to The New York Times, between 1991 and 1999, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spent an average of $1.4 billion a year putting out fires; from 2002 to 2012, that cost had grown to $3.5 billion a year as wildfires grew in ferocity.

But, at the urging of lawmakers from the Western United States, President Obama's proposed 2015 budget includes a recommendation that the USFS and Interior Department be allowed to use a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund to battle the harshest wildfires. The idea makes sense, treating wildfires as natural disasters — along with hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes —while allowing for more flexibility in how the money is spent.

Fire-prevention funds, meanwhile, would be reserved for their intended purpose — thinning dead forests, maintaining forest roads and creating buffer zones around homes that are vulnerable to wildfires. The idea has been passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee but still has a long road to travel in Congress. In the meantime, our state is dealing with a fire of historic proportions. The Carlton Complex fires have burned about 250,000 acres, supplanting the 1902 Yacolt Burn and its place in infamy. The Yacolt Burn, which did not actually torch the Clark County town from which it got its name, consisted of dozens of wildfires that leveled about 240,000 acres and caused 65 deaths. The Carlton Complex has not quite approached the 355,000 acres engulfed by the Tillamook Burn in Oregon's Coast Range, a series of fires between 1933 and 1951.

Yet while this year's conflagration in Washington is historic in nature, it would be naive to not view it as a harbinger. Because of climate changes that lead to higher average temperatures, earlier snowmelt and drier conditions, extreme fires are growing in number. And because of the increasing encroachment of homes in heavily forested areas, those fires can present a vast danger to lives and property. As of Thursday, the Carlton Complex fires had burned 150 structures and been blamed for one death.

More than 2,000 firefighters and support personnel have been called in to battle the Carlton blazes, but northern Washington is not the only area in flames. Wildfires were burning this week in Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and California, and Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell were among those urging lawmakers to pass emergency legislation allocating $615 million to fight the fires.

The difficulty of the battle is highlighted by the fact that flame-suppressing rain also can bring fire-igniting lightning and concerns about flash flooding. All of this is part of the price for living in the most scenic part of the country, an area where the mountains and the beaches are accompanied by lush forests. Those forests are destined, at times, to burn. When that happens, it is a natural disaster, and the federal government should recognize it as such.