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Reps. Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers, Schrier Invite USDA and DOI Secretaries to Visit Central Washington in Midst of Historic Wildfires

August 24, 2021
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Reps. Dan Newhouse (WA-04), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-05), and Kim Schrier (WA-08) invited U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to visit Central Washington to see firsthand the destruction they are facing due to catastrophic wildfires and to discuss how they can work together to address this endemic.

“This year, Washington state continues to face severe wildfire conditions, and we are only just entering our fire season,” wrote the lawmakers. “For years, strategies to mitigate and fight wildfires have not yielded results – just look at the amount of damage that has occurred in Central and Eastern Washington over the last six years. Federal agencies must act now to address these devastating wildfires.”

Over Labor Day weekend in 2020, Central and Eastern Washington experienced catastrophic wildfires including the 189,923-acre Cold Springs Fire and the 223,739-acre Pearl Hill Fire, which resulted in the loss of land, businesses, homes, and lives. During the same weekend, the Babb Road Fire completely decimated the towns of Malden and Pine Springs. In 2021, these same communities face equal devastation.

The lawmakers concluded, “We urge you to come to our districts in Central and Eastern Washington to meet with local leaders and hear directly from them on the challenges we continue to face. We hope to find common ground and develop new strategies to prevent and protect the lives and land that continue to meet these disastrous challenges. This is not the legacy we want to leave our children.”

Central Washington officials have echoed support for the invitation:

“Technology today provides us with comprehensive and timely coverage of climate conditions and wildfires; however, there is nothing quite like seeing, firsthand, the challenges being met in protecting lives and property with such limited resources. Congressman Newhouse’s effort to provide that on-site review for Secretaries Vilsack and Haaland is timely, responsive and, hopefully convincing in communicating the need to increase the pace and scale of forest treatment to reduce the threat of these catastrophic events,” said Chris Branch, Okanogan County Commissioner.

“The impacts of the 2021 wildfire season in Okanogan County have had an increased affect due to the drought the county is enduring. These major wildfires began in early July and they are continuing to affect the community. In total, these catastrophic wildfires have consumed over 260,000 acres in Okanogan County. While several towns and communities have had to evacuate their homes for their personal safety, the entire region feels the daily impact of the hazardous air conditions due to the smoke. These fires have interrupted commerce and tourism to the area by closing State Route 20 as well as destroyed thousands of acres of our timber resources and the grazing land our ranchers depend on to feed their herds,” said Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley. “I appreciate [Rep. Newhouse’s] efforts to bring Secretary Vilsack of the Department of Agriculture and Secretary Haaland of the Department of Interior to Okanogan County so they are able to get a firsthand look at this destruction and the impacts these fires have had on our communities.” Click here to read his full letter of support.

“I am grateful to Rep. Newhouse for leading the effort to bring Secretaries Vilsack and Haaland to visit the fire damages in North Central Washington and echo his invitation. As a PUD commissioner, 3-generation cattle rancher and 24-year lineman, I understand how important it is that they hear from real people on the ground who deal with these fires and the gross mismanagement of federal land year-after-year,” said Scott Vejraska, Okanogan County Public Utility District Commissioner.

The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation invited Secretary Haaland to witness the drought and fire damage on the Colville Reservation in July.

Read the full letter here and below.

Dear Secretary Vilsack and Secretary Haaland,

We write to you today concerning the destruction wildfires are inflicting across Washington state. Over the last several years, Washington has faced extreme heat and drought conditions, along with outdated forest management policies that have severely exacerbated fire conditions. These recent events have decimated critical conservation areas, including greater sage grouse recovery efforts, tree fruit operations, and cattle operations in Washington. We urge you to visit Central and Eastern Washington to witness the damage being done and the need for new solutions.

In Central and Eastern Washington, we are all too familiar with catastrophic-sized wildfires and their repercussions. Over Labor Day weekend in 2020, we witnessed a firestorm in Douglas and Okanogan Counties that was fast and destructive. The 189,923-acre Cold Springs Fire jumped the Columbia River to burn an additional 223,730 acres in the Pearl Hill Fire. The Cold Springs Fire burned so fast that one family was left stranded and severely burned while their son lost his life, and the mother lost her unborn child due to the extent of her injuries. Over the same weekend in Whitman County, the Babb Road Fire completely decimated the towns of Malden and Pine City.

Our towns are still recovering from the devastation of these events.

This year is no different. Just last week in Washington, there were 14 major fires. Nine of those fires burned or are actively burning in Okanogan County, and others pose significant threats to suburban and rural communities:

  • The Cedar Creek and Cub Creek Fires, two active fires near the cities of Winthrop and Twisp, have already burned 123,939 acres and are still growing. These fires continue to threaten these communities and have halted the recreational activities the area depends on for economic viability.
  • The Muckamuck Fire has been encroaching on the town of Conconully. This fire has already burned grazing permitted land and left no time to relocate the livestock in the area.
  • The Walker Creek Fire and Chickadee Fire continue to burn between the towns of Tonasket and Republic. These two active fires are threatening over 900 structures where evacuation orders remain in place. Both fires continue to burn through grazing permitted land, logging areas, recreation sites, and lynx habitats.
  • The Whitmore Fire is actively burning at 58,280 acres, and the Summit Trail Fire is at 42,670 acres. These fires are expected to grow even larger as they have minimal containment.
  • The Corkscrew Fire north of Spokane has already claimed several homes.
  • The Schneider Springs fire in Yakima County, northwest of Naches has burned just under 70,000 acres and continues to grow.
  • The TwentyFive Mile fire in Chelan County just north of Chelan continues to grow in size and is only 8% contained.

Unfortunately, earlier this summer, the Colville Reservation was in the path of the Chuweah Creek wildfire. The Chuweah Creek Fire burned 36,752 acres, including three homes, and almost burned down the town of Nespelem. Washington State has faced significant challenges over the last decade with the persistent spread of catastrophic wildfires. Secretary Vilsack, you might recall the wildfires that occurred during your previous tenure as Secretary in 2014 and 2015 when the Mills Canyon, Carlton Complex, and the Okanogan Complex, among others, burned over 1.4 million acres. Much of the same areas are burning today.

This year, Washington state continues to face severe wildfire conditions, and we are only just entering our fire season. For years, strategies to mitigate and fight wildfires have not yielded results – just look at the amount of damage that has occurred in Central and Eastern Washington over the last six years. Federal agencies must act now to address these devastating wildfires. We urge you to come to our districts in Central and Eastern Washington to meet with local leaders and hear directly from them on the challenges we continue to face. We hope to find common ground and develop new strategies to prevent and protect the lives and land that continue to meet these disastrous challenges. This is not the legacy we want to leave our children.

We look forward to your response and hosting you in Washington state.

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