Preventive Care For Our Wildfire Crisis: Trust Me, I’M A Doctor

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by Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona

As we embark on another dangerous wildfire season, it is of the utmost urgency that we adopt a forward-thinking, active management strategy that combats dangerous wildfires before they get started. As a medical professional for over 25 years, I know firsthand that preventive care is a much cheaper and effective treatment as opposed to dealing with an illness or disease after it has already been diagnosed. This must be the same approach we take to forest health and wildfire prevention. Unfortunately, President Obama and his administration continue to play politics with wildfires and waste billions of dollars on the back-end on suppression.

The president included $615 million for wildfires in his recent $4 billion request for the ongoing crisis on our southern border. This shameful Washington ploy was meant to be a sweetener to get western members on board with an incredulous spending proposal that won’t solve our immigration problem. This is deplorable and the president needs to get serious about preventing wildfires before they occur and stop using tragedies in the West for partisan politics.

Currently, there are 39 active large fires in the country, including six in Arizona. Already this year more than 30,000 different wildfires have burned nearly 2 million acres. USDA Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell recently testified that, “70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire” and that an “analysis in 2012 showed 58 million acres of National Forest System (NFS) lands with a high, or very high, potential for a large wildfire that would be difficult for suppression resources to contain.”

Nearly 10 million acres burned in the 2012 wildfire season. Failure to focus on wildfire prevention strategies that season resulted in 44 times as many acres being burned than responsibly harvested as the Forest Service only harvested approximately 200,000 acres in the entire country.

Thinning overgrown forests and removing hazardous fuels will create jobs and increase overall forest health. Unfortunately, extremist environmentalists fail to comprehend this fact and hold up important forest health management projects that would actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sound data from NASA has concluded that one catastrophic wildfire can emit more carbon emissions in a few days than total vehicle emissions in an entire state over the course of a year.

In fiscal year 2015, the fire season appropriations request was approximately $4 billion for all wildfire programs. Shamefully, the president requested only $356 million of those funds go toward hazardous fuels reduction activities.

This classic example of Washington misprioritization is extremely misguided. The Forest Service’s own Fuel Treatment Effective Database reports that “over 90 percent of the fuel treatments were effective in changing fire behavior and/or helping with control of the wildfire.”

Unfortunately, federal land management agencies have failed to recognize this correlation and timber harvests are down 80 percent over the last 30 years. Such flawed thinking also negatively impacts education and local communities as historically 25 percent of the receipts from all timber harvested by the federal government go toward schools and important infrastructure projects.

Over the last 10 years, the percentage of the Forest Service’s budget spent on fire suppression has increased from approximately 13 percent to nearly 40 percent of the entire annual budget. Significant reforms are needed to reduce these costs and empower the private sector.

Instead of squandering billions of dollars putting out fires, we should explore groundbreaking GPS technologies, like those being utilized at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, which can catalog and instantly determine the health of every tree in a particular forest. Such high-tech developments will allow for more timely and efficient environmental studies which in turn will get hundreds of projects off the ground.

In February, H.R. 2642 was signed into law and contained the majority of my Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act authorizing important stewardship contracting, good neighbor authority as well as important insect and disease infestation designations.

While this legislation is a great start, we still must pass other important bills like the House-passed forest health package, H.R. 1526, title 2 of which includes the remainder of my Catastrophic Wildfire Prevention Act.

H.R. 1526 will create more than 68,000 direct jobs and nearly 140,000 indirect, improve local management of our forests and significantly reduces the threat of catastrophic wildfires. Recently, I was joined by 28 other members of Congress in sending a letter to leadership reaffirming the need for H.R. 1526.

Unfortunately this bipartisan bill which passed the House by a vote of 244-173 has been sitting on Harry Reid’s desk since September 20, 2013. It’s time for Harry Reid’s do-nothing Senate to take action and pass H.R. 1526. I’m sick of being a victim of catastrophic wildfires — let’s go on the offense.

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