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Officials, lawmakers call for greater investment in wildfire prevention

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WASHINGTON – For every dollar the government spends preventing wildfire damage, it could save cash-strapped agencies like the Forest Service another $5 on fighting increasingly large fires, a Senate committee was told Tuesday.

Witnesses at the Senate Agriculture subcommittee hearing said the government needs to invest more in proactive fire management like forest-thinning projects, which would reduce the number of large wildfires and the cost of fighting them.

“It’s a textbook example of penny-wise and pound-foolish and it needs to change,” said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., chairman of the Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources, which held the hearing.

The Forest Service has exceeded its wildfire suppression budget seven times since 2002, witnesses said.

Arizona wildfires were cited multiple times by witnesses who said the damages could have been reduced if more had been spent in advance on preventive measures.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in June, was one example, said Forest Service Deputy Chief Jim Hubbard in his testimony. The 2010 Schultz Fire in Coconino County was another, said Sallie Clark, incoming vice president of the National Association of Counties, who said loss, recovery and flood mitigation costs totaled $120 million after that fire.

Arizona lawmakers in the House and the Senate welcomed the hearing’s call for fire prevention and mitigation, instead of just trying to suppress a blaze once it’s started.

One such widespread preventive project is underway in Arizona after a rocky start. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which aims to thin about 300,000 acres of Arizona forests, could be “exactly what the doctor ordered,” said Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott.

Gosar said the idea of preventing large fires by thinning forests is not controversial, but the process of moving that kind of project through a federal bureaucracy makes the contracting process more difficult. The process needs to be streamlined if Four Forest and projects like it are to work, he said.

“Everybody agrees in doing it, but the federal government is in the way of getting it done,” Gosar said.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, also said the Four Forest Restoration Initiative could accomplish the goals laid out in Tuesday’s hearing.

“Wildfire prevention is a smart investment that can help reduce risk and limit damage,” Kirkpatrick said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “Otherwise, we pay a much higher price as we try to recover from disasters like the Yarnell Fire. That’s why efforts like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative are so important – we need to keep working together to ensure their success.”

A spokeswoman for Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the Four Forest initiative is the kind of proactive approach that Flake, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others aim to achieve with their bill that would make it easier for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to contract for forest stewardship projects.

Hubbard said in his testimony that the Forest Service now spends more than 40 percent of its budget on wildfire suppression, compared to about 13 percent in 1991.

Chris Topik, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests Program, said Congress should increase the Forest Service’s fuel reduction budget – the amount used for forest thinning and other projects – by at least 50 percent.

Western states in particular have seen large fires become more frequent in recent years, and in states like Arizona, severe drought and climate change have combined to create more damage during the fire season, Hubbard said. Eight states, including Arizona, have experienced the largest or most destructive fires in their histories in the last six years, Hubbard said.