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Massive wildfires bring bipartisan calls for change

TAGS: Business
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Over 44,000 wildfires have burned 7.1 million acres so far this year, leaving behind devastation.

Seventy-four large fires have recently burned 3.7 million acres in 11 western states, with many still burning. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 44,174 wildfires have burned 7.1 million acres in the U.S. so far this year. The devastation left behind in both urban and rural areas has renewed calls for solutions to prevent similar events in the future.

While they may disagree on the cause of the wildfires or the methods that should be used for preventing them, members of the House Agriculture Committee's conservation and forestry subcommittee agreed during a Sept. 24 hearing on one thing: Forest management must be a greater priority.

John Phipps, deputy chief for state and private forestry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified during the hearing, emphasizing that the raging wildfires are the result of not allowing the wildfires to naturally burn in order to maintain more resilient forests.

He pointed out that the recommended density of trees per acre is 64, but many of the forests currently burning have 320 trees per acre -- about five times the recommended amount. This has occurred, he said, “because for over 110 years, we've been trying to put out every fire we can.”

During the meeting, calls for prescribed burns, grazing and timber management surfaced from committee members who have heard reports and seen the catastrophic results of the mismanagement.

When prompted to provide lessons learned, Phipps said, “We need to think big. If we are going to try to have a managed landscape that is resilient to fire, we need to do much more than we're doing. That has to be with participation of communities, state lands, federal lands and private lands.”

Still, the change won't happen overnight, he said, estimating that it will take 10 years to get to a more desirable place. The price tag for the change will require roughly two to three times more funding in the area of land management and fuels management, he added. Last year, about $1 billion were appropriated.

Phipps said the events this year “broke the system,” as agencies struggled to address the number of fires that have occurred all at the same time.

“It's likely the case that we need to maintain the fire suppression capability while we're working to manage the landscape better at least over a 10-year period,” Phipps said.

During the hearing, subcommittee ranking member Doug LaMalfa (R., Cal.)  pressed Phipps for more action.

“Constituents are very tired of what's been happening,” he said. “We're all feeling it, and when we see our urban friends even feeling it -- not only in the bay area but all of California and even here on the East Coast -- then I hope it really sounds the alarm that we have got to do something that has to be a lot more dramatic.”

Some of the solutions, such as prescribed burns, may be unpopular, LaMalfa said, “but we need to be able to educate people and say, 'This is necessary.' Because when we don't do it, we have a scale of fire that is much worse.”

He added, “We'll have to be bold and step over lines and say, 'No, we must do this.'”

LaMalfa also noted that some have been reluctance to use grazing more widely, even though it has proved to be an effective fire prevention tool.

“It's not anything new under the sun, and they act like it is," he said. "They go, 'Let's have a pilot program on grazing.' What's there to prove? We know it works. It reduces the fine fuels down there. We don't talk about grazing everything off, but there are certainly strategic zones where this is useful for keeping the fuel loads down as well as the type of fire break zones that would be helpful for firefighters.”

Further, he noted that the Forest Service has continued to reduce animal unit months, which are used to describe the animal carrying capacity of a given forage or pasture.

LaMalfa asked Phipps: “Why are we seeing a downward trend in this when this is a very effective tool? Can we get a greater commitment to this as an effective tool? There are those that don't want to cut trees; there are those that don't want to have prescribed burns. This seems like a win-win to me.”

In a statement following the meeting, LaMalfa said, “Year after year, I have called for better forest management practices to prevent this damage, but year after year, Congress and the Forest Service fail to address it. Today's hearing put pressure on the Forest Service to improve their forest management efforts and spotlighted Congress's inability to enact real forestry reform.

"Given the current fire situation, the federal government has a concrete reason to act. There's no reason why we can't streamline forest management projects for timely completion, make commonsense reforms to the way we manage our forests and ensure that our wildland firefighters have the equipment and personnel they need to address a fire right when it starts. Congress and the Forest Service need to step up,” the statement added.

Losses widespread in agriculture

Dave Kranz, director of publications and media relations for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told Feedstuffs that as more ranchers have gotten back into the high country, livestock losses from the fires have been reported. However, no specific information on the number of animals lost is known at this time.

“The bulk of agricultural damage from the flames continues to be to pasture and rangeland, though some farms have suffered direct fire losses,” he noted.

Smoke also remains a concern, particularly for winegrape growers, especially those nearest the center of fires.

In Oregon, nearly 30 wildfires are currently burning, and nearly 1 million acres have already burned.

Heartbreaking stories have begun to emerge on social media about entire ranches being wiped out, including livestock that have been lost or burned.

One rancher in Oregon shared, “You start thinking about what, for us, the future is; you don't want to go on.”

His family lost every aspect of their working ranch except the house, including miles and miles of fence, outbuildings, feed, etc. The hardest part, he said, was dealing with the burned cattle.

In Lincoln County, Wash., the Whitney Fire has affected an estimated 30 ranchers, 10,000 head of cattle, 130,000 acres of range and pasture and countless stacks of winter hay.

Farm bureaus urge support for federal wildfire bill

The American Farm Bureau Federation and 13 state farm bureaus are asking Congress to give federal land management agencies additional tools and resources to prevent and recover from catastrophic wildfires.

The bureaus sent a letter to Senate leadership in support of the Emergency Wildfire & Public Safety Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation that is being considered to expedite forest management, accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation and remove dead and dangerous wood from national forests.

“Backlogs in adequate management, coupled with drier, hotter conditions, have resulted in unhealthy, overly dense forests,” the letter stated. “When fires inevitably occur, these conditions result in larger, more catastrophic fires that are difficult to control, destructive to both urban and rural communities and pose great threats to both private property and human life.”

While the legislation will help mitigate future fires, it will not address the immediate needs of farmers and ranchers suffering devastating losses from fires burning right now.

American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall said, “The images of wildfires are heartbreaking when you watch a family's livelihood disappear, but the damage continues long after the flames are put out. Smoke can damage soil and spoil crops, causing losses for several months after a disaster. In addition to better management of our forests, we need to be prepared to help farmers who have lost everything. We encourage Congress to consider additional disaster funding to meet the needs of communities affected by the wildfires.”

Seventy-four large fires have recently burned 3.7 million acres in 11 western states, with many still burning. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 44,174 wildfires have burned 7.1 million acres in the U.S. so far this year. The devastation left behind in both urban and rural areas has renewed calls for solutions to prevent similar events in the future.

While they may disagree on the cause of the wildfires or the methods that should be used for preventing them, members of the House Agriculture Committee's conservation and forestry subcommittee agreed during a Sept. 24 hearing on one thing: Forest management must be a greater priority.

John Phipps, deputy chief for state and private forestry at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, testified during the hearing, emphasizing that the raging wildfires are the result of not allowing the wildfires to naturally burn in order to maintain more resilient forests.

He pointed out that the recommended density of trees per acre is 64, but many of the forests currently burning have 320 trees per acre -- about five times the recommended amount. This has occurred, he said, “because for over 110 years, we've been trying to put out every fire we can.”

During the meeting, calls for prescribed burns, grazing and timber management surfaced from committee members who have heard reports and seen the catastrophic results of the mismanagement.

When prompted to provide lessons learned, Phipps said, “We need to think big. If we are going to try to have a managed landscape that is resilient to fire, we need to do much more than we're doing. That has to be with participation of communities, state lands, federal lands and private lands.”

Still, the change won't happen overnight, he said, estimating that it will take 10 years to get to a more desirable place. The price tag for the change will require roughly two to three times more funding in the area of land management and fuels management, he added. Last year, about $1 billion were appropriated.

Phipps said the events this year “broke the system,” as agencies struggled to address the number of fires that have occurred all at the same time.

“It's likely the case that we need to maintain the fire suppression capability while we're working to manage the landscape better at least over a 10-year period,” Phipps said.

During the hearing, subcommittee ranking member Doug LaMalfa (R., Cal.)  pressed Phipps for more action.

“Constituents are very tired of what's been happening,” he said. “We're all feeling it, and when we see our urban friends even feeling it -- not only in the bay area but all of California and even here on the East Coast -- then I hope it really sounds the alarm that we have got to do something that has to be a lot more dramatic.”

Some of the solutions, such as prescribed burns, may be unpopular, LaMalfa said, “but we need to be able to educate people and say, 'This is necessary.' Because when we don't do it, we have a scale of fire that is much worse.”

He added, “We'll have to be bold and step over lines and say, 'No, we must do this.'”

LaMalfa also noted that some have been reluctance to use grazing more widely, even though it has proved to be an effective fire prevention tool.

“It's not anything new under the sun, and they act like it is," he said. "They go, 'Let's have a pilot program on grazing.' What's there to prove? We know it works. It reduces the fine fuels down there. We don't talk about grazing everything off, but there are certainly strategic zones where this is useful for keeping the fuel loads down as well as the type of fire break zones that would be helpful for firefighters.”

Further, he noted that the Forest Service has continued to reduce animal unit months, which are used to describe the animal carrying capacity of a given forage or pasture.

LaMalfa asked Phipps: “Why are we seeing a downward trend in this when this is a very effective tool? Can we get a greater commitment to this as an effective tool? There are those that don't want to cut trees; there are those that don't want to have prescribed burns. This seems like a win-win to me.”

In a statement following the meeting, LaMalfa said, “Year after year, I have called for better forest management practices to prevent this damage, but year after year, Congress and the Forest Service fail to address it. Today's hearing put pressure on the Forest Service to improve their forest management efforts and spotlighted Congress's inability to enact real forestry reform.

"Given the current fire situation, the federal government has a concrete reason to act. There's no reason why we can't streamline forest management projects for timely completion, make commonsense reforms to the way we manage our forests and ensure that our wildland firefighters have the equipment and personnel they need to address a fire right when it starts. Congress and the Forest Service need to step up,” the statement added.

Losses widespread in agriculture

Dave Kranz, director of publications and media relations for the California Farm Bureau Federation, told Feedstuffs that as more ranchers have gotten back into the high country, livestock losses from the fires have been reported. However, no specific information on the number of animals lost is known at this time.

“The bulk of agricultural damage from the flames continues to be to pasture and rangeland, though some farms have suffered direct fire losses,” he noted.

Smoke also remains a concern, particularly for winegrape growers, especially those nearest the center of fires.

In Oregon, nearly 30 wildfires are currently burning, and nearly 1 million acres have already burned.

Heartbreaking stories have begun to emerge on social media about entire ranches being wiped out, including livestock that have been lost or burned.

One rancher in Oregon shared, “You start thinking about what, for us, the future is; you don't want to go on.”

His family lost every aspect of their working ranch except the house, including miles and miles of fence, outbuildings, feed, etc. The hardest part, he said, was dealing with the burned cattle.

In Lincoln County, Wash., the Whitney Fire has affected an estimated 30 ranchers, 10,000 head of cattle, 130,000 acres of range and pasture and countless stacks of winter hay.

Farm bureaus urge support for federal wildfire bill

The American Farm Bureau Federation and 13 state farm bureaus are asking Congress to give federal land management agencies additional tools and resources to prevent and recover from catastrophic wildfires.

The bureaus sent a letter to Senate leadership in support of the Emergency Wildfire & Public Safety Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation that is being considered to expedite forest management, accelerate post-fire restoration and reforestation and remove dead and dangerous wood from national forests.

“Backlogs in adequate management, coupled with drier, hotter conditions, have resulted in unhealthy, overly dense forests,” the letter stated. “When fires inevitably occur, these conditions result in larger, more catastrophic fires that are difficult to control, destructive to both urban and rural communities and pose great threats to both private property and human life.”

While the legislation will help mitigate future fires, it will not address the immediate needs of farmers and ranchers suffering devastating losses from fires burning right now.

American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall said, “The images of wildfires are heartbreaking when you watch a family's livelihood disappear, but the damage continues long after the flames are put out. Smoke can damage soil and spoil crops, causing losses for several months after a disaster. In addition to better management of our forests, we need to be prepared to help farmers who have lost everything. We encourage Congress to consider additional disaster funding to meet the needs of communities affected by the wildfires.”

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