The numbers associated with the wildfires that ravaged Northern California last month are staggering. The fires burned across a 245,000-acre area — or nearly 400 square miles — and damaged or destroyed more than 14,000 homes, 700 commercial properties and 3,200 vehicles. The death toll is now up to 42.
While the financial losses are still being tabulated — with some estimates as high as $4.6 billion — lawmakers are debating ways to reduce the risk of similar fires in the future. One of the ideas being considered is a GOP bill that would wisely target current environmental rules and speed up approval for logging and other actions in national forests.
As USA Today notes, Republicans and members of the timber industry have long protested environmental rules that make it difficult to cut down trees to reduce fire risk. Plans to harvest trees on federal lands can take years to win approval. The GOP bill, which is set to be approved, would loosen environmental rules that block forest-thinning efforts on federal property.
“Now more than ever, there is a needed urgency to protect our nation’s federal forests from the kind of devastation that California experienced,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said last week. “(The bill) will help us stop forest fires before they occur.”
The U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies have spent a record $2.9 billion this year battling fires that have burned nearly 9 million acres in California, Oregon, Montana and elsewhere. According to The Associated Press, the GOP bill is also designed to fix a “fire borrowing” problem that officials rely on to transfer funds from fire prevention programs to attack increasingly devastating wildfires.
The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., argues that the fires illustrate “how years of unmanaged federal forests have wreaked havoc on our environment, polluting our air and water and destroying thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.”
He and other Republicans tout proactive management of forests — including prescribed burns, salvage logging of dead trees and other projects to chop down small trees and underbrush — that would not only reduce the risk of wildfires but also reduce their severity.
“We must ask ourselves: What kind of future are we leaving for the next generation when we have failed to conserve federal forests that overwhelm the sky with thick smoke and ash when they burn?” says Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chief sponsor of the Senate GOP bill.
As of last week, six large fires were still burning in the West. Democrats and environmental groups complain that Republicans are disregarding environmental laws, wildlife and the environment. Mother Nature is already doing a great job of that, however. What’s needed is a reasonable solution, which the GOP has proposed.