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Lessons From This Relentless Fire Season

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

This year, Idaho has had more than 600 fires on federal land.  More than 100 of these fires have burned in excess of 100 acres.  As we take stock of where we go from here, we must continue to work to ensure that we are prepared for the worst, equipped with the best methods to deal with catastrophic fires and trained for mitigating the consequences of fires. 

The impacts of the fires have been hard felt in Idaho communities.  The tragic loss of Anne Veseth, a student from Moscow who was fighting a wildfire near Orofino, was a reminder of the dangerous service of fire crews working to keep us safe.  In addition to the risk to human lives and health, there have been other impacts.  Homes, property, livestock and pets have been lost.  There has been the stress associated with the uncertainty of evacuations and lost tourism revenue.  There are also longer term effects like the loss or impairment of important wildlife habitat, the release of particulate matter into the atmosphere, the impact to watershed functions or water supplies and even significant releases of carbon dioxide that in bad fire years can be nearly a quarter of total emissions. 

Additionally, catastrophic fires erode the resources necessary for prevention.  This year, an estimated more than $90 million has been spent fighting fires in Idaho, and this cost will likely grow before the year is over.  The Trinity Ridge fire has burned more than 140,000 acres and cost $27.4 million.  The Mustang Complex fire that has burned more than 280,000 acres has required 960 personnel, including 14 hand crews, 76 engines, 5 bulldozers and 3 helicopters.  Estimates have the fire costing $17.5 million so far. 

The dedication and exceptional efforts of the fire crews near the front lines of Idaho's fires are extraordinary.  The organization and communication from the National Interagency Fire Center, local governments, fire departments and law enforcement and the level of calm in the face of fires bearing down on communities make all the difference.  But, we can take steps to make the fire crews and response coordinators' jobs less difficult and dangerous.  Working together to ensure effective land management; reducing fuel loads through grazing and other fire management tools; and collaborative efforts to reduce the threat of large-scale wildfire are essential steps. 

Throughout my time in Congress, I have supported legislation that provides land managers with more tools to counter unhealthy conditions in our nation's forests and other lands to reduce the threat of fires.  For example, I helped enact the Healthy Forest Restoration Act and the Forest Landscape Restoration Act to expedite forest management decisions to enable fuels reduction, promote landscape-wide forest restoration projects, encourage collaborative efforts that create new forest jobs and prioritize energy and value-added products from timber harvest.  Partnerships between federal, state and local stakeholders are essential to productive outcomes and fire prevention on public lands.  The success of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative with the Selway/Bitterroot landscape restoration project is an example of the effectiveness of collaborative efforts in natural resources management.  This project reduced hazardous fuels near homes; decreased noxious weeds; improved trail and roads; produced timber and biomass fuel; and supported 105 full-time and part-time jobs in Fiscal Year 2011. 

Together, we can replicate these successes.  In the aftermath of this severe fire season, we must work together to enable land managers to reduce the fuel loads that make it possible for the fires to burn so long and relentlessly.  This can help ensure that more of the limited funding goes toward fire prevention rather than resource-depleting response. 

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