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We could reduce wildfires sizes by 70%

September 5, 2018

By Congressman Greg Walden,

“We are hostages in our own homes.” That’s how Jennifer, a mother from Medford, described to me what communities in Southern Oregon and across the West are enduring yet again: a summer filled with smoke and fire.

Jennifer continued in her letter to me saying, “my children are robbed of being able to play outside. I absolutely hate that nothing is done to prevent this from happening.”

As I traveled throughout Southern Oregon in recent weeks, I met with concerned citizens, veterans, small business owners, and community leaders who had the same deep frustration as Jennifer. I share that frustration as well, as do people I meet with throughout our state.

Year after year, we are suffering from the effects of catastrophic wildfires and the smoke that comes with it. Our airsheds are choked and smoke blankets our communities, giving us some of the worst air quality in the world this summer.

We cannot accept this as our “new normal.” The only way to fix this problem that impacts us all is to fix the broken policies that have led to these overstocked forests and unnaturally catastrophic wildfires in the first place.

As Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, I announced that we are going to hold a hearing this fall to examine the health consequences of the smoke from these fires and explore the various contributing factors, from climate change to overstocked forests. This hearing will serve as an opportunity to address the current state of our forests and what policy changes need to be made.

In parts of Oregon, our forests are packed with nearly 1,000 trees per acre on land that historically had 20 trees per acre — a clear sign that our forests are overstocked and need to be restored to their natural balance.

Moreover, a recent study by The Nature Conservancy, Forest Service, and others found that fuel management projects can reduce the size and intensity of fire up to 70 percent and reduce carbon emissions from the fire by up to 85 percent.

That’s why we need to give our forest managers additional tools to remove the excess fuel loads that have built up in our forests.

To help mitigate the risk of these fires, we need to speed up and increase our work in the woods.

And after fires, we should remove the burned, dead trees — where appropriate and while they still have value — and use the proceeds to pay for replanting a new, healthy forest for the next generation. That’s called stewardship, and that’s what happens on private, county and state lands. These needed reforms were included in the Farm Bill that passed the House earlier this year with my support. Unfortunately, the Senate’s version of the legislation failed to include these common-sense changes.

As negotiations on the final bill proceed, it’s time for the Senate to act and include these needed provisions.

The Farm Bill builds on the progress we made toward fixing federal forest policy earlier this year when we passed into law the most significant reforms in over a decade.

We provided the Forest Service with tools for rapid implementation of wildfire resiliency and hazardous fuels reduction projects.

And we took steps to fix fire borrowing starting in 2020, which will help end the vicious cycle of depleting resources for fire prevention to pay for fire suppression.

This progress is important, but we have a long way to go. Nearly 30 years of poor management have created a tinderbox in our federal forests that ignites every summer. It will take significant time and effort to restore balance to our public lands.

But we must push forward. Working together with people on the ground in Oregon, my colleagues in Congress, and the administration, I am confident that we can continue moving in a better direction for communities across the West, our airsheds, water sheds, and federal lands.

I’ve heard the same message loud and clear from Oregonians like Jennifer no matter where I go in our state: something needs to change in the way we manage our forests. I am committed to making that change happen.

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Discuss this article

David Schott September 5, 2018

A huge start would be for the Forest Service to attack fires with everything they’ve got as soon as they are discovered, just like the Oregon Dept of Forestry does in fighting fires on BLM, State and private timberlands. It’s essential to keep small fires small. It’s the huge fires that cause all this distressing smoke, that and the huge amount of back-burning the USFS does when attempting to keep the huge fires under control. All the large fires in timber this year in Oregon started on USFS lands even though the ODF had more fires to fight that the USFS did. It’s part of a culture change that needs to occur in the USFS…from the very top on down.

Trenor Scott September 5, 2018

The July 15 lightning fires are a good example of what David Schott is describing.
According to NOAA the storm put down 917 strikes which set 117 fires in SW Oregon.
There were several large fires – Garner, Taylor, Klondike and some lessor medium sized fires.
However the majority of the strike/fires were stopped small by the Oregon Department of Forestry.
They are equipped with small tankers and backup dozers plus air support when they need it.
The other vital factor is an extensive road network which allows them to get get on these fires as soon as they are discovered.
The Forest Service, in contrast, has far less ability to get to the fires rapidly – due to a limited road net and large areas of wilderness and roadless. This has resulted in a series of large fires – often burning over the same areas – because of snags and accumulations of down fuel.
As long as policies prevent hazard reduction by salvage and better access, it is hard to see how the large fire cycles can be broken.

Norman Alander September 6, 2018

Hi, I am 84 years old and can remember the 3 C’s corps, Civilian Conservation Corps., that existed when I was a young person, these people worked in the forests building trails, bridges, campgrounds and did fire suppression work removing underbrush and necessary cleansing to maintaining a safe and healthy place for wildlife and people to enjoy. This was accomplished by employing young men interested in forestry and interested in getting off the streets in over crowded cities and learning a way of life they could pursue. Persuaded this in a town meeting several years ago where I live, with a democrat representative, and the idea fell on deaf ears as was stated the republicans wouldn’t hear of it. So, politically, many lives and much property has been lost because of this kind of attitude. I rest my case, it is for the people to decide.

Glen Miller September 8, 2018

The inflexible ideology of enviro groups has resulted, as T Scott says, in large areas of public land being designated wilderness or national monuments. National Forest lands are often steeper and harder to manage than lower elevation state and private forest lands. Instead of closing roads/routes, USFS planning should be incorporating construction and maintenance of increased access networks. These would enhance fire control operations and increase public recreation opportunities.

One example of extreme ideology at the start of the Carr fire near Redding, CA, was the threat of a dozer operator being arrested if he unloaded his machine at the site of the start of the fire when he could have caught almost after it started. The Nat. Park Service official who threatened to arrest the dozer operator has a lot to answer for, and I hope he/she is looking for a new job.

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