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COLUMN: Making Central Washington’s Voice Heard on Wildfires

October 10, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

The past few weeks, much of the nation’s attention has focused on devastating hurricanes on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts as well as in the Caribbean. We have come together as a nation to care for those suffering and offer assistance to Americans affected by hurricanes. But in the Pacific Northwest and across the West, thousands of Americans have struggled with a very different kind of natural disaster: wildfires. Since January 1st, more than eight million acres of land have burned in wildfires across the U.S. Eight million acres is slightly larger than the size of the state of Maryland. Another 80 million acres are considered high risk to the threat of catastrophic wildfires. 

As our smoky skies in Central Washington have attested, 2017 has been one of the worst fire seasons in American history. Our communities have been devastated by wildfires such as the 2014 Carlton Complex fire, which was the largest in state history until the 2015 Okanogan Complex fire—during which we lost three firefighters.

This year, hazardous smoke has choked our communities and led to conditions that threaten the health of vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly. Where are people supposed to go when the air is unhealthy in an entire region?

Last week, we had some good news in the fight against wildfires. Director Mick Mulvaney of the Office of Management and Budget announced that the Trump Administration adopted recommendations I made with my colleagues in Congress to support active forestry management and provide wildfire disaster relief. The administration included $576.5 million for wildfire funding in its supplemental request for recent hurricanes.

I joined with my colleagues at a recent press conference on Capitol Hill to amplify that we cannot allow another year to go by without making reforms to forest management. Our forests have become disease-ridden and infested with pests such as beetles, creating tinderboxes and increasing the odds of catastrophic fires. I support the Resilient Federal Forests Act, introduced by Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR), to address the threat of these wildfires by applying tools of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to increase active forest management and thinning practices to improve forest health.

We must at the same time fix the way we budget for wildfire suppression and end fire borrowing, which ‘robs Peter to pay Paul’ by redirecting critical fire prevention resources in the Forest Service budget to pay to fight wildfires.

I commend the Trump Administration for hearing our request for relief for devastated communities affected by this year’s historic wildfire season. Congress must now act so that rural communities do not continue to face wildfire threats year after year.