Feds readying efforts to fight wildfires this summer after record-high year of blazes

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2017, file photo, a motorists on Highway 101 watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above the roadway north of Ventura, Calif. There's a sense of relief at the U.S. Forest Service because of the billions of additional dollars made available by lawmakers over the next decade to fight catastrophic wildfires but also a duty to spend it wisely. (AP Photo/Noah Berger, File)

Washington • Federal officials said Thursday they’re preparing for the coming wildfire season while stressing that many parts of the country — including big swaths of Utah — are susceptible to “significant” blazes this summer.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Department Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, signed an annual agreement Thursday to cooperate in combating fires that break out this year. For the first time, the agreement allows the Forest Service to use unmanned aerial technology to help extinguish fires from the air. The Interior Department has used drones previously.

A forecast by the two federal departments indicates significant threat of fires in southeastern Utah this month, a threat that extends to most of the state in June and remains for northern Utah in July and August.

Last year saw the largest scourge of wildfires in modern history, with 10 million acres burned and 12,300 structures destroyed. Fighting the flames cost the government nearly $3 billion and took the lives of 14 firefighters.

Zinke and Perdue, who briefed lawmakers Thursday morning, say that after such a disastrous year, they know they need to highlight cooperation between agencies because fires don’t respect bureaucratic boundaries.

Both departments will continue to collaborate to ensure all firefighting assets are being used in an efficient and effective manner,” Zinke and Perdue said in a statement. “It is essential that firefighters have the right tools, resources, and flexibility to allow them to do their jobs safely.”

Technology, like drones, will be key to that, the secretaries said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, recently told the Forest Service’s acting chief, Vicki Christiansen, that the agency needs to ensure it has the right management to oversee the wildfire-suppression effort and to end the repeated borrowing of money from other funds to pay for firefighting.

The agency has been given more funding, new tools and expanded authorities,” Murkowski said at an April hearing. “We’ll be looking to build on those. But, in the meantime, get going to correct the management failures that have plagued the agency for years. End fire borrowing and revamp your budget process. Ensure that our forests are productive again.”

Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who heads the House Natural Resources Committee and joined Zinke and Perdue for Thursday’s briefing, has expressed concern that the Forest Service and Interior are not doing enough to minimize fire hazards on public lands.

Katie Schoettler, a spokeswoman for Bishop’s committee, said Thursday that concern is still valid as fire season begins.

While additional dollars provided by the recent [spending bill] may help pay to put out fires this upcoming year, all the money in the world is simply cosmetic if we aren’t actively managing our forests,” Schoettler said. “Senate Democrats are still blocking meaningful forest management reforms that have been passed by the House that give land managers the tools they need to prevent the fires from starting in the first place. The money is damage control, but we still need damage prevention through proper management.”

The House passed the Resilient Federal Forest Act last fall, though the Senate has yet to take it up. The bill’s sponsors say it would streamline environmental reviews to remove dead trees, offer tools to mitigate insect and disease infestation and improve the health of forests and grasslands.

That bill, though, has come under fire from Democrats and environmental groups.

This bill is extreme and, unfortunately, instead of protecting and restoring our public forests, [the legislation] puts our forests, communities and wildlife at risk,” the National Parks Conservation Association said in opposing the bill. “The provisions offered in response to the wildfire funding crisis, even in this most recent version of the bill, are completely inadequate, leaving unaddressed the largest part of the problem: the growing impact of wildfire suppression on the Forest Service’s annual budget.”

Arizona’s Raul Grijalva, ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday that the GOP is using wildfire suppression as cover to push through pro-logging language.

“Republicans use the specter of wildfires as an excuse to dismantle bedrock environmental protections. It’s disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Forest Service and BLM have the tools they need to manage forests, and the bipartisan funding fix will ensure they have the capacity to get projects on the ground.”

Grijalva also said, When members of Congress who support these clear-cutting bills use the phrase ‘management reforms,’ the public should just substitute ‘industry wish list.’”