August 12, 2013

Wildfire Mitigation Efforts

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

As wildfires burn across the western United States, efforts continue in Congress to try to help alleviate pressure on the firefighters and others working tirelessly to keep our communities safe.  While some of these objectives will take time to achieve, it is clear that we need to maintain focus on improving the health of our federal lands, decreasing the threat of catastrophic fires and ensuring that firefighters have the best resources to protect our communities.   

I recently joined Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) in introducing the bipartisan Prepare, Ready, Equip and Prevent Areas at-Risk of Emergency (PREPARE) Wildfires Act that would provide targeted investments for mitigation and preparedness.  The legislation would direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to establish a new pilot program to fund wildfire mitigation.  The bill would authorize an additional $20 to $30 million per year for a five-year wildfire mitigation pilot program, as part of the agency's Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) fund.  The cost of the PREPARE Act would be fully covered through existing federal funds and adds zero to the deficit.  

This legislation is part of our efforts to obtain more meaningful investments in wildfire mitigation through FEMA.  A 2007 CBO study of FEMA's PDM program indicated that a small share of the agency's mitigation funding went to wildfires, despite these wildfire projects having high returns on investment.  For every dollar FEMA has spent through the PDM fund on wildfire mitigation, it has saved more than $5 in future disaster losses.  In July, we secured a measure in the Senate's Fiscal Year 2014 U.S. Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill directing FEMA to develop a report detailing its efforts to mitigate wildfires and identify any funding obstacles for current mitigation programs. 

Additionally, stewardship contracting has been a successful tool utilized by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to reduce fire hazards, restore watershed and promote healthy forests.  I helped enact the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003 that promoted stewardship contracting projects that incorporate public-private partnerships as part of responsible, localized forest management.  More of these successful projects must occur.  I am pressing for the adoption of legislation to permanently extend and improve stewardship contracting that will otherwise expire on September 30, 2013.

Over the last decade, wildfires have caused an average of over $1,000,000,000 in economic damages, killed over 150 Americans, and destroyed thousands of homes and other structures across the nation.  The six worst wildfire seasons in the past 50 years in the United States have all occurred since 2000.  Unfortunately, for many Idahoans and others throughout the West, wildfires have become the norm and not the exception.  We must mitigate and prepare for these large-scale fires on federal, state, local and privately-owned land, while not adding to the federal deficit.  These measures can help us achieve that goal.  The firefighters and others who face extreme conditions to keep our families safe deserve continued efforts to reduce the threat they face. 

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