A new wildfire danger has hit California. As this story is written on Tuesday morning the fire — still very much out of control — is fueled by the very powerful Santa Ana winds hitting 40 to 60 miles per hour. The fire has consumed more than 30,000 acres. This is an evolving story and the acreage and destruction will grow.
It is on the edge of Ventura and spreading fast. The fire hit that acreage in just nine hours. To date 150 buildings have been destroyed so far and over 7,700 homes in Ventura and nearby Santa Paula are under mandatory evacuation. Power is out for over 260,000 homes.
Most of the wildfires that devastated huge swaths of the West during the summer and fall have been contained or put out by rain or snow, or both. While fires are cooling the debate on what to do about the destructive wildfires has caught fire in Congress. Last summer close to 9 million acres went up in flame and smoke.
That’s an area the size of New Jersey and Connecticut combined.
Smoke impacted some of the biggest cities in the region like Seattle, Portland, Sacramento and San Francisco. Fire actually threatened areas around Portland. And we are all still shocked at the fire storm that engulfed cities and wineries in Northern California killing 43 people and destroying 9,000 homes and businesses.
Leading the battle for a solution is Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden. He said, “What’s made it different this year is that it’s now clear that the fires are bigger and hotter and more powerful.”
Wyden — and other proponents of changing how we manage forests and firefighting — says each year the U.S. Forest Service now spends half of its budget fighting forest fires. That’s up from 16% a little over a decade ago in 1995. The Forest Service now doesn’t have enough money for fire prevention work. This is an especially critical concern in wildfire-prone cities and rural areas where 120 million of us now live.
The senator wants firefighting to be moved to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) or other federal emergency outlets like we do with hurricanes and earthquakes. “The big fires ought to be treated for what they are, which are natural disasters. And you don’t raid the prevention fund to put them out,” Wyden said.
His fix — also proposed at one time by former President Barack Obama — is gaining traction in Congress. Republicans like the idea but say Wyden doesn’t go far enough. They — like Arkansas Republican Rep. Bruce Westernan — contend the real solution is the return of more commercial logging on federal lands. Westerman — who is a former forester and the chief sponsor of the Resilient Federal Forests Act — said, “I tell people I think we’ve loved our trees to death, and we’ve swung the pendulum way too far on trying to preserve timber instead of conserve timber. You know, preservation is what you do with art in a museum,”
His measure passed the House 232 to 188 on November 1st. It does away with a lot of environmental restrictions that have paired down the number of acres available to log.
Oregon Rep. Greg Walden agrees with Westerman. He wants more logging and also wants more forest management. “When the country changed and said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re not going to engage in active harvests,’ you lost that revenue stream that used to pay for those things. I’d like to see us get back partially,” Walden said.
Environmentalists and Oregon’s other member of the Senate, Sen. Jeff Merkley disagree on the need for logging. He is on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has pushed for more money for fire prevention for forests. Merkley noted the Forest Service has a backlog of thinning projects that would impact 1.6 million acres and these projects have already passed environmental reviews.
“Why go to the timber wars of the past if we have the solutions sitting right in front of us,” Merkley said.
He has an ally in Randi Spivak of the Center for Biological Diversity. She said one of the main reasons we have the growing wildfire risk is commercial logging in the past. “National Service lands were heavily logged so we have changed these forests tremendously because of commercial timber production, taking out the large fire-resistant trees,” Spivak noted.
Trump administration Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is also a Wyden ally. He wants a permanent wildfire fix and says borrowing prevention dollars to fight fire isn’t getting the job done. Doing anything other than fire prevention is not a way to run the agency.
Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell — a Democrat — has put together a bill she believes is a compromise between what Wyden wants and the bill Westerman has authored in the House. She says it has provisions that both the environmentalists and timber concerns are seeking.
Her compromise is something Walden can support. “I think there’s a deal to be had here,” Walden said.
Source link: KUOW, CNN