This year's brutal wildfire season in the Western United States, which continues in California, has prompted yet another congressional effort to try to help communities prepare for and prevent catastrophic blazes.
A bipartisan group of Northwestern senators last week introduced a bill that would authorize more than $100 million to help at-risk communities prevent wildfires and also would create a pilot program to cut down trees in the most fire-prone areas. The group behind the proposal includes Oregon's Ron Wyden, Washington state's two Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, and Idaho's Republican senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.
The idea of getting help to at-risk communities isn't particularly controversial, but you can bet some eyebrows in the conservation community went up at the notion of cutting down trees in fire-prone areas; some environmentalists are suspicious that some of these wildfire-prevention bills are just ways to encourage logging without heed to environmental regulations.
Which was part of the reason why it was interesting to see that last week's proposal did win praise from some conservation groups, including the National Wildlife Federation.
According to an Associated Press report, the bill would create a streamlined approval process that would allow forest managers to thin pine forests near populated areas and to do controlled burns in remote regions. The bill also calls for detailed reviews of any wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres. In 2016, six wildfires hit that 100,000-acre threshold, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center.
We like the idea of gathering additional information about the very biggest fires. The more we know about their causes and how they spread, the better, especially since wildfires generally appear to be growing larger. According to the center's statistics, the number of wildfires during the last three years (from Jan. 1 to the third week of October) has hovered just around 50,000. But the total number of acres burned each year is ramping up: In four of the last seven years, more than 8 million acres have burned. (The 10-year average is just over 6 million.)
The new proposal appears to attempt to strike a compromise that would give forest managers some of the resources they need to reduce the fuels that allow fires to grow bigger and bigger. In general, Republicans have wanted to make it easier for federal land managers to thin overgrown woodlands, while Democrats are wary about allowing timber companies greater access to harvest federally owned forests. But it's never seemed to us that those two goals should be mutually exclusive, so it will be interesting to watch how this bill fares.
In the meantime, Congress still is kicking around a proposal that would consistently allow forest managers access to the funds they need for maintenance work on federal forests — work that would, year in and year out, remove some of those fast-burning fuels. The proposal would end the practice known as "fire borrowing," in which money originally budgeted for maintenance work is siphoned off to help pay for firefighting. The result, of course, is that much of that maintenance work goes undone for want of funding, leaving the fuels behind to help create the next batch of extreme wildfires.
To be fair, it's not as if Congress has ignored this year's of fires: An emergency-aid bill passed in the wake of this year's devastating hurricane season included $577 million for wildfires. But that bill didn't address the fire-borrowing issue.
Maybe this is the year: It's October, and Congress is still thinking about wildfire funding. Usually by this time of year, the issue has been placed on the congressional back burner, where it simmers until the start of next year's fire season. Maybe this is the year when we'll finally make progress on an issue shows no signs of going away.