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After string of huge wildfires, 'saner approach' to prevention sought

A Senate hearing focuses on prevention after a string of costly, massive wildfires in the West.

November 05, 2013|By Becca Clemons
  • A firefighter surveys the ruins of the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp near Groveland, Calif., in August after the Rim fire swept through the area.
A firefighter surveys the ruins of the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp near Groveland,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — On the heels of a fire season that burned more than 4,000 homes and killed 34 people across the country, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) on Tuesday called for a "saner approach" to preventing wildfires while budgets are strained as a result of fighting them.

"It's hard to believe that while damages have soared, we're also spending more than ever to fight fires," Bennet said at a Senate Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources subcommittee hearing.

In the last six years, eight Western states have experienced the largest or most destructive fires in their histories, said James Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service. He said higher temperatures and periods of drought had created longer fire seasons.

The Black Forest fire near Colorado Springs in June was the most destructive ever in Colorado. Later, 19 firefighters were killed by the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona, the largest single loss of firefighters since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

More than $3 billion from other Forest Service programs have been transferred to the fire suppression budget since 2002. That takes money from programs that "mitigate wildland fire hazards in future years," Hubbard wrote in his testimony.

The government should prioritize protecting forests near homes, power lines and ski areas, said Davey Pitcher, owner of the Wolf Creek Ski Area in Pagosa Springs, Colo., which was threatened by the West Fork Complex fire this year.

"Twenty years ago if you had come to me and said there were going to be forest fires in southwest Colorado at the scale I've seen in the last year, I would have laughed," Pitcher said.

Thousands of acres of dead trees — perfect fuel for wildfires — near urban areas are "a recipe for the kind of disaster we experienced" with the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado last year, said Sallie Clark, a El Paso County commissioner.

Better cooperation between state and local governments and more money from Congress could help communities and the Forest Service set controlled burns and remove timber that poses the greatest risk.

Prevention is "critical," said Tom Troxel, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Assn., an industry group in Rapid City, S.D.

"It really doesn't make sense to just fix the funding piece without trying to incorporate a package of proactive forest management steps so we have a chance to get ahead of the fire problems that we have," Troxel said.

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