Gunpowder on the mountains |

Gunpowder on the mountains

The 2002 wildfire season was unofficially ushered in last week when a small brush fire on the Gila National Forest exploded into a massive inferno that ravaged nearly 40,000 acres of public forest land near Reserve, N.M.

A smaller but more devastating wildfire near the Lincoln National Forest destroyed 29 homes just the week before.

Far from isolated incidents, these catastrophic episodes are nature’s opening salvo in what promises to be a menacing and destructive fire season in the American West.

So bad is the situation on our national forests that some experts have said that the fire conditions in the West are comparable to those proceeding the calamitous 2000 fire season, when wildfire plundered 8.4 million acres of forest land, ravished 860 homes, and claimed 17 lives nationally. In 2000, Colorado’s Front Range was ripped by two major fires that, in addition to eviscerating 20,000 acres of forest land and wildlife habitat, also overran 70 homes and structures. The year also witnessed the Bircher Fire in Mesa Verde National Park, which ravished vast swaths of untrammeled country and stopped just short of annihilating the park’s world-famous cliff dwellings and other archaeological resources.

The cause of the West’s wildfire epidemic – an epidemic whose symptoms became obvious during the 2000 fire season – is by now well documented: Since the early 1900s, federal land managers have effectively suppressed fires on the public lands and national forests. This decades-long policy of fire exclusion has resulted in the build-up of a sea of small trees, biomass and other woody materials on the floor of the nation’s forests. This build-up is called “hazardous fuels” but might as well be called gunpowder on the mountains because, combined with the driest season in decades, it’s one lighting strike away from exploding into an inferno.

When the dust settled on the horrors of the summer of 2000, Congress stepped up to the plate with an unprecedented financial commitment – $1.8 billion in all – to begin reducing the hazardous fuels loads that have built up on the under-story of our forests. As part of this pledge, the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior produced a National Fire Plan as part of a long-term solution to the U.S. wildfire problem. More firefighters are on the ground and new equipment is in place to battle the blazes. However, while very real progress has been made in battling the forest fire problem, many issues still remain.

Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office, the watchdog group of the U.S. Congress, issued the latest in a long line of reports criticizing the departments of Interior and Agriculture for failing to adequately integrate their efforts to reduce the menacing specter of catastrophic forest fires.

The GAO asserted in its January report that this lack of meaningful coordination and communication continues to significantly hamper the efficiency and effectiveness of the National Fire Plan.

Even before the latest GAO report, I put the departments of Interior and Agriculture on notice, telling them to either fix the problem or that Congress would fix it for them. The fix that I suggested at the time was the establishment of a national fire czar, a National Fire Council or some other inter-agency structure whose role would be to bring uniformity and consistency to federal wildland fire policy.

Last week, the combined departments announced the creation of an interagency agreement establishing the Wildland Fire Leadership Council to support the implementation and coordination of the National Fire Plan and the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.

According to the administration, the council will be a cooperative, interagency organization dedicated to achieving consistent implementation of the goals, actions, and policies that are needed to combat the fires yet to come and will provide the leadership and oversight to ensure policy coordination, accountability and effective implementation.

Staff of the council will consist of high-level officials from both administrative agencies who have extensive wildland fire experience. They will be responsible for working as a collaborative group with state and local officials and other federal partners to tactfully address federal wildland fire, fuels hazard reduction and other natural resource management concerns related to wildland fire.

The Administration’s interagency charter creates exactly the kind of unified front that is so essential and instrumental to the success of the National Fire Plan. What’s more, it ensures that Congress’ robust financial commitment to reducing the threat of catastrophic forest fires will be implemented with greater precision and efficiency.

With the 2002 wildfire season lurking it dreadful head around the corner, the personnel over at the administration deserve real praise for establishing an institutional decision-making structure that’s likely to produce a more coherent and consistent wildland fire policy. The Wildland Fire Leadership Council is a meaningful step that will lead to better policies that better protect western communities and our forests from the forces of catastrophic fires.

U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, is chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forests Health.

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