With wildfire season just around the corner and much of the west and southwest still dangerously dry, the Obama Administration has released its National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
The strategy addresses factors exacerbating wildfire danger such as climate change, increasing community sprawl, and pests and disease affecting forest health. It calls for adopting preventive measures, such as: fuels thinning and controlled burns; promoting effective municipal, county, and state building and zoning codes and ordinances; ensuring that watersheds, transportation, and utility corridors are part of future management plans; and determining how organizations can best work together to reduce and manage human-caused ignitions.
“As climate change spurs extended droughts and longer fire seasons, this collaborative wildfire blueprint will help us restore forests and rangelands to make communities less vulnerable to catastrophic fire,” Council on Environmental Quality Acting Chair Mike Boots said in a press release. “With President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, the Administration is committed to promoting smart policies and partnerships like this strategy that support states, communities, businesses, farmers, ranchers and other stakeholders who are working to protect themselves from more frequent or intense fires, droughts and floods, and other impacts of climate change.”
The Administration highlighted the Blue Mountains near Flagstaff, Arizona and the Greater Okefenokee Association of Landowners in Georgia as areas where these strategies have already been implemented successfully.
In February, President Obama announced plans to change how the U.S. pays for the rising costs of fighting wildfires. In his 2015 budget, Obama called for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
The new funding framework is designed to avoid forcing the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior to drain fire prevention budgets to pay for big wildfires. According to the White House, over the past two years, these agencies have, out of necessity, taken about $1.1 billion from funds designed to pay for programs to clear brush and thin overgrown forests to reduce fire danger.
The federal government currently shoulders about two-thirds of the cost of fighting wildfires, about $3.5 billion every year. This figure is three times what was spent in the 1990s.
The cost of fighting wildfires has skyrocketed in recent decades as climate change has intensified drought, shrunken snowpacks and aided in the spread of tree-killing insects. The dramatic expansion of building in what is known as the “wildland urban interface” has also contributed greatly to the bill as firefighters struggle to protect the now more than 47 million homes in these high risk areas.