COLUMN: We Remember the Carlton Complex Fire

July 29, 2019
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

Five years ago, Washington state experienced the most catastrophic wildfire in its history. The Carlton Complex fire raged through Central Washington, burning more than a quarter of a million acres and leaving more than 500 homes and structures destroyed in its path.

More than 2,800 firefighters from across the country poured in to assist the firefight. Today, the communities, small businesses, and families of Okanogan County are still rebuilding and addressing the long-term consequences of this disaster.

We cannot go back in time to prevent the damage done in the summer of 2014, but we can look forward and work to ensure devastation like this doesn’t happen again.

Decades of misguided forestry policies from previous administrations have resulted in a dire situation for our country’s federal forests and lands. Ignoring the input of local stakeholders, allowing for egregious environmental litigation, and praying for more rain will never adequately address the situation at hand.

Our national forests are in desperate need of revitalization. Acres of dead trees and fallen branches serve as kindling for thirsty wildfires, and the U.S. Forest Service hasn’t had the adequate resources to actively manage the lands in the off-seasons.

Last year, Congress finally approved a spending bill to end the damaging practice of “fire borrowing” by providing the Forest Service with additional resources to fight massive wildfires when they occur. These funds will significantly improve the Forest Service’s ability to utilize their existing budget in the way it was intended: to actively manage our forests, reduce hazardous fuels, and conserve our public lands. But we must do more.   

Last week, I joined Representative McMorris Rodgers to reintroduce the Fostering Opportunities for Resources and Education Spending through Timber Sales (FORESTS) Act, a bill that aims to reduce our risk of wildfires and improve our national forests and federal lands through collaboration with state and local governments, tribes, and industries. By encouraging public-private partnerships and timber harvesting, we would take an important step toward preventing wildfires that do irreversible damage to our rural communities. This legislation would also help supplement the Secure Rural Schools program, which provides critical funding to counties and localities with large tracts of federally-owned national forest land.

The anniversary of the Carlton Complex fire is a sobering occasion. As we remember the firefighters, first responders, and volunteers who worked tirelessly to combat the flames, we also remember the resilience of our communities and our forests.

Improved forestry management will not happen overnight, but we owe it to our friends and neighbors to make progress on this critical issue for Central Washington and the West. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress and the Administration to create and pass better policies to care for our public lands and prevent catastrophic wildfires.