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How Washington's formula for fighting wildfires makes them worse

How Washington's formula for fighting wildfires makes them worse
A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire threatening the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, Calif., on Oct. 13. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The monstrous flames ripping through Northern California in recent days have burned communities to the ground, killed dozens of people caught in their path and wreaked havoc on a regional economy.

By almost any metric, that would be defined as a natural disaster — except the one used by Congress to draw up the federal budget.

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The absurd way in which Washington pays to put out wildfires throughout the West is making a dangerous situation even more so. It's a rare point of bipartisan agreement in Congress that a fix is urgently needed, particularly as fires grow in duration and intensity.

But as with so much else on Capitol Hill, politics and ideology have left a serious problem to fester and grow, as lawmakers forsake a simple solution and hold the issue hostage to more complicated battles. Partisan feuds over climate change, clear-cutting and bedrock federal environmental policies are undermining efforts to confront the rapidly swelling fire money dilemma.

The root problem: the U.S. Forest Service is strapped for cash. Its firefighting budget amounts to a fraction of what it actually costs to fight fires. Not sending firefighters is hardly an option. Even in the wine country blazes, which are not on federal land, the service has sent 1,500 firefighters to help out the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, along with dozens of fire engines, air tankers, helicopters and water scoopers.

The Forest Service has no choice but to pay for the assistance by raiding funds from other programs in its budget — many of them oriented toward preventing the very fires it is fighting. Prevention efforts are put aside as dollars are funneled to putting out flames.

To put it in perspective: About 56% of the agency's budget now gets consumed fighting fires. In 1995, not even a sixth of its budget was spent there. That is a lot of fire prevention work going undone.

"We have a dangerous, worsening cycle," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said on the Senate floor just before California's wine country became an inferno. "Shoddy budgeting today leads to bigger fires tomorrow, and it needs to stop. … This battle has gone on for years."

This is not the way Washington confronts other disasters. Hurricane, tornado and earthquake assistance and relief come from emergency funds that can be accessed without robbing other programs.

State officials are growing increasingly anxious that wildfires are treated differently. The bipartisan Western Governors' Assn. warned congressional leaders in November that the financial shell game "has allowed severe wildfires to burn through crippling amounts of the very funds that should instead be used to prevent and reduce wildfire impacts, costs, and safety risks to firefighters and the public."

Cal Fire just last week expressed concern about the reliability of federal help in the future if the financial chaos persists. Within four years, more than two-thirds of the Forest Service budget will be consumed by firefighting costs if Congress does not act.

But Congress can't seem to figure out how, amid feuding about the science and economics of wildfires. Many Republicans are demanding that any solution involve intensifying the amount of logging on public land, allowing clear-cuts as large as 10- or 15-square miles in federal forests, and weakening the National Environmental Protection Act, the 1969 landmark law that drives much of federal conservation policy.

The rollbacks are nonstarters for Democrats, who brandish research findings that climate change is a major driver of the intensifying fires, not too little commercial logging. California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris last week sent Trump a letter as fires raged in Northern California imploring him to support fixing the Forest Service money problem in a stand-alone measure, and then deal with the broader disputes over forestry management separately.

The White House has gone the other direction. Its budget director, Mick Mulvaney, wrote in a letter to congressional leaders that "active forest management and other reforms must be part of the solution to curb the cost and destruction of wildfires." The posture has emboldened Republicans in their push for more logging.

Among them is Rep. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, who during a floor speech this month mocked the science Democrats point to showing climate change is a big factor in the worsening wildfires. One such study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found that climate-change-induced hotter, drier weather in the West has doubled the amount of forest land hit by wildfires since 1984.

McClintock made clear he doesn't buy it. He instead blamed the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Their "endlessly time-consuming and cost-prohibitive restrictions," McClintock said, have driven away the timber companies that had previously helped clear the driest and most stressed wood from forests.

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"Well, after 45 years of experience with these environmental laws — all passed with the promise that they would improve our forest environment — I think we are entitled to ask: How's the forest environment doing?" McClintock said. "All around us, the answer is damning. These laws have not only failed to improve our forest environment, but they are literally killing our forests."

Democrats and environmentalists say the House measure that McClintock and other Republicans favor to fix the Forest Service funding problem is less about fighting fires than creating a big giveaway for logging interests. "We don't think completely eliminating environmental safeguards will solve the problem or make us safer," said Megan Birzell, national forests campaign manager at the Wilderness Society. "We don't need 10,000-acre clear cuts in the back country to solve this."

The continued fight, for now, leaves the Forest Service in the lurch as resources from its prevention programs are drained to fight increasingly bigger and hotter fires.

Wyden called it "the longest running battle since the Trojan War."

"The West," he said, "cannot wait any longer for Congress to break this dangerous cycle that defies common sense, shortchanges wildfire prevention, and does it year after year."

Twitter: @evanhalper

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