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Another View: How Washington fueled our wildfires

By: Jessica Morse
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It’s time for some straight talk about this year of record-setting wildfires. These are not natural disasters as much as they are political disasters.

This year’s fire season has been the worst on record for California. The Detwiler fire in July burned across 120 square miles, destroying more than 60 homes in and around Mariposa County. The October firestorm incinerated much of Napa Valley. And now, in mid-December, blazes are raging in Southern California.

Forest fires have been getting bigger, more frequent and more deadly for at least the past 20 years. There are good reasons to think that climate change plays a big role in this, because it is clearly tied to increases in droughts and other extreme weather, along with the bark beetle infestation that has created so much ready fuel in the Sierra.

But even if you think the role of climate change is murky when it comes to wildfires, it is absolutely clear that bad forest management and willful negligence have made fires much worse. Congress has consistently short-changed the budget for the kind of proper forest management — from fire-breaks to forest-thinning — that would reduce the intensity and cost of catastrophic fires.

The result has been a vicious cycle: the US Forest Service spends more and more to fight fires that get worse and worse, but the fires keep getting worse because it has less and less money for long-term fire prevention.

As of early December, the US Forest Service had spent $2.4 billion on firefighting in 2017, the most expensive fire season ever. But in order to pay for that, the Forest Service had to raid more than $500 million from every other part of its budget, including for the already impoverished programs in land management and hazardous fuel reduction.

They call this “fire borrowing,’’ and it’s been gutting fire prevention for years. Back in 1991, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget on firefighting. Today, that share is above 50 percent. We are spending more money only to generate bigger fires and bigger losses.

President Trump would make things even worse. His proposed budget for next year would slash the firefighting budget by another $300 million, and the fire-prevention budget by another $50 million.

The president’s supporters in Congress, notably Rep. Tom McClintock., have done no better. Nearly 70 percent of our district is forest, so you would think McClintock would be a real champion for fire-prevention and forest management.

You would be wrong. McClintock, who doesn’t actually live in the 4th District, has done nothing to stop the gutting of the US Forest Service. His only real platform on fire prevention is to eliminate environmental restrictions on clear-cutting and other commercial uses of national forests.

Effective solutions are in our grasp, but we need to invest in them. The Butte Fire of 2015 cost $73 million to fight and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage to Calaveras County. But a $2,000 fire-break saved one of our precious communities, Mokelumne Hill. Additional fire-breaks and a well-planned forest-thinning program could have saved hundreds of millions. Partnering with ranchers to coordinate grazing could have cleared out dangerous accumulations of undergrowth. These programs also create economic opportunities and jobs — think here of micro-mills — for our communities.

I’m tired of watching one California community after another go up in flames, and sustainable logging could have curbed those damages by hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s time to fully fund fire prevention and healthy forest management, so that putting out today’s fire doesn’t make the next one more likely.

Jessica Morse is a candidate for Congress in California’s 4th District.