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How California and Western States Should Shift Their Fire Prevention Strategy

As proud as I am of my brother’s efforts over the years to save lives and homes, I know how dangerous it is. About 80 firefighters have lost their lives fighting fires in the United States this year.

(TNS) - When the phone rang at 4:50 a.m. Thursday, I woke up on high alert. No one calls that early with good news.

When I saw the caller ID said “CSUN Emergency,” my heart started racing. My youngest son, Cameron, attends California State University-Northridge. High alert shifted to dread.

It turned out the call was just to inform us that CSUN was canceling classes that day due to poor air quality and transportation issues stemming from the massive Southern California wildfires. What a relief. But there was no chance I would go back to sleep without finding out how close the fires were to CSUN’s dorms and what the strategy was for putting the fires out.

The latter was of particular interest because I’ve been writing and editing stories and editorials on California wildfires ever since the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people, destroyed more than 3,000 homes and resulted in $1.5 billion worth of damage.

A quarter century later, neither the state nor the federal government has figured out an effective way to combat these wildfires.

The Southern California fires hit just two months after the massive devastation caused by the Wine Country fires. They have destroyed 790 structures, burned 175,000 acres and displaced 90,000 from their homes. This demands a major shift in strategy.

My brother Bob concurs. He is the fire chief of Walla Walla County’s rural Fire District No. 8 in the state of Washington. He texted me Friday to tell me his crew was next on a shortlist to head south and help fight the Southern California fires. One strike team of fire engines from Walla Walla and the nearby Tri-Cities had already left that morning.

I knew that’s what firefighters throughout the West routinely do whenever another region needs help. But it raised my interest in California’s strategic thinking to an even higher level.

As proud as I am of my brother’s efforts over the years to save lives and homes, I know how dangerous it is. About 80 firefighters have lost their lives fighting fires in the United States this year.

As the impact of climate change continues to grow, California and other states need to put considerably more resources into both preventing wildfires and, when they do start, reducing their impact.

We need not accept Gov. Jerry Brown’s warning Saturday that the firestorms in Southern California are “the new normal.” The state Legislature, Congress and local governments must find the political will to make fire prevention a higher priority.

The alternative is to accept an increase in the number of wildfires that go out of control and jump into urban, residential areas, causing billions of dollars of damage in California and throughout the West.

For starters, California and the federal government need to stop robbing their fire prevention budgets to pay the increasing costs of fighting fires.

Eight years ago the federal Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture submitted the FLAME Act (Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement), a comprehensive wildfire strategy crafted in collaboration with state and local governments. A special emphasis was placed on reducing “the severe challenges of wildfire on areas of high-risk.” It’s a major problem for Western states.

It set three specific goals:

• Establish enough reserves for the Forest Service and Interior Department to effectively prevent and extinguish wildfires.

• Manage vegetation and increase the use of controlled burns to improve the resiliency of forests and range lands.

• Engage homeowners and communities in being more proactive to reduce both the risk of fires and the impact when they occur.

The funding has not been forthcoming, primarily because members of Congress, heavily influenced by either environmentalists or the logging industry, cannot agree on proper forest management techniques. Instead, President Trump wants to cut $300 million from the Forest Service’s firefighting budget and $50 million from the wildfire prevention budget.

I’m well aware of the president’s desire to shrink government, but this is outrageous.

The Wine Country fires caused an estimated $3 billion in damage. The Southern California fires are estimated at $1 billion so far.

And that’s not counting the costs of fighting the fires. Every dollar invested in fire prevention now would save hundreds of dollars in potential damage from wildfires in 2018.

I’m relieved that the Southern California fires remain far enough away from my son’s dorm that they don’t pose a threat. And my brother and his crew haven’t yet been called on to head south. But 2018 will bring more dry conditions and high winds that will make Western states vulnerable to even greater devastation.

Firefighters and property owners in rural areas need to demand sufficient funding to make California as safe as possible from wildfires.


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