Wildfires are part of complex web of federal, local policy


Wildfires are complicated, and it’s not just a matter of the fires breaking out and firefighters rushing in to put out the flames. Wildfire as a public policy issue is about much more than just the fire – were there fire prevention measures completed beforehand like thinning, to make the forests healthier and less suspectible to fire? Why or why not? How were the firefighting resources deployed around the state? These questions could be answered by a host of parties – the U.S. Forest Service, Congress, the Washington Department of Natural Resources and tribal and other local leaders.

It’s no surprise that every wildfire season, as fires burn around the West, these policy questions push to the forefront. 

The editorial board of the Spokane Spokesman-Review just wrote in support of federal legislation that would end the U.S. Forest Service practice of “fire borrowing.” This is where the agency raids other parts of its budget, including money set aside for wildfire prevention, to meet the rising cost of fighting wildfires each summer.

The problem has been persuading politicians (outside the West) that Western wildfires are tantamount to the natural disasters they face. They don’t seem to realize that federal lands cover about 60 percent of Idaho and 30 percent of Washington state.

…Hopefully, more members of Congress will go to bat for the Forest Service by allowing it to tap emergency funds outside its budget for natural disasters.

This, in turn, would leave the agency with more money to prevent fires in the first place and to restore forest health.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., was asked this week by a reporter about the rise in wildfires and the “fire borrowing” legislation.

“I think the policy focus needs to be on healthy forests. We need to be looking at better forest management,” (McMorris Rodgers) said. “Clearly, we have a lot of trees that are dead, diseased, bug-infested, and that needs to be addressed.”

…“We’ve been borrowing from management funds in order to fight fires, and that is what we need to change,” she said. “We need to protect the money that is dedicated to management and prevention and then fight fires with a separate funding source.”

Mark Doumit, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, told Lens that private forest landowners are pleased with how Washington DNR has coordinated the fire response this summer.

For private forest officials in Washington, things seem to be moving in the right direction (on state fire response). A major concern for them has been improved communication and collaboration between state and local fire districts.

Mark Doumit is the executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, which represents 50 private forest landowners in the state. He told Lens that Eastern Washington members “were pleased they had been engaged more by DNR than in the past, to talk about how landowners might work with fire crews and coordinate efforts. Really, we think that DNR has done a good job of managing large fires.”

…Doumit added that getting the roles of different government agencies right is key.

“We want this thing to be a collaborative effort, but really see DNR as top of the command structure,” he said. “The federal government and DNR need to be more in sync on what the operations on the ground are going to be.”