U.S. Senate encourages federal agencies to reduce wildfire threats

Former Fire Chief for the San Bernardino National Forest was lead witness before the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing on the outlook for the 2019 wildfire season.
While the wet spring weather has tempered the number of fires, Shawna Legarza, director of Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service, was cautious about the summer and fall expectations.
“… [A]bove normal potential exists for significant large fires this summer across California and the West Coast where a heavy crop of grasses and fine fuels has developed and the wildfire risk will increase as conditions become drier,” she told the committee.
“All those grasses will be drying out from the heavy rain and snow pack,” she added. “From this will come large fires.”
Other witnesses concurred with this forecast. In particular, Wade Crowfoot, secretary of California’s Department of Natural Resources, said, “While the precipitation replenished reservoirs and delayed the start of fire season in higher elevation forested lands this year, it actually worsened the wildfire outlook for 2019, particularly for lower elevation foothills and grasslands.”
While the hearing subject was the fire outlook for this summer, the majority of questions were addressed to Legarza and were about the Forest Service’s actions and roles.
The committee’s questions ranged from “What more can we do?” to “Why aren’t you implementing the tools we’ve given you?”
In particular, several senators were concerned about the reduction in the number of timber harvests throughout the U.S. as a tool to thin forests and reduce fire threats. But some committee members chided Legarza for the Forest Service’s recent announcement of revising its environmental analysis process, including expanding the number and type of categorical exclusions.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) called it a lawyer’s full-employment action because of the anticipated litigation. He argued that the Forest Service could spend just as much money on mitigating hazardous fuels as it will defending these regulations.
Concern also was expressed over the time it is taking the Forest Service to equip its fire crews with Global Positioning System monitors. The issue has been posed for several years and this year Congress passed legislation authorizing it.
Jeffery Rupert, director of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire, testified that the Bureau of Land Management fire teams will have GPS equipment tracking suppression resources next year.
“The BLM plans to equip 240 [GPS] satellite terminals on engines and other equipment in all BLM states at a reasonable cost: additional terminals will be purchased and installed in 2020.”
He also discussed BLM’s use of unmanned aviation systems to monitor wildfire spread with them on all fires now.
The Forest Service held a three-day conference this month to discuss GPS equipment with vendors, other fire agencies, scientists and industry experts, Legarza reported.
Fire breaks also were discussed. Sen. Cory Gardner, (R-CO), asked what the agencies were doing to create and to maintain fuelbreaks.
Crowfoot expanded on the value and benefit of fuelbreaks throughout the California forest lands.
“One of the lowest cost and highest impact ways to lower fire intensity and protect communities is fuels treatment — building strategic fuelbreaks,” Crowfoot said. “Even in the face of a high-wind-driven mega fire like the Camp Fire, the few fuelbreaks that were in place did their job.”