The death of 19 firefighters, overrun by a horrible and swift wildfire, on its face should not be politically exploitable. The bravery and sacrifice of the men who died on Yarnell Hill should stand apart.
It does, for now. The fire that took their lives is not yet contained. The embers may have to cool before the we-told-you-so statements rise to the top, but they will, inevitably. Those who see wildfires in the tinder-dry West as evidence of climate change will say we can best help firefighters by cutting carbon emissions and supporting President Obama’s strangling of the coal industry. Simultaneously, the realists will point out that fighting climate change is one thing, but the administration that wants carbon-cutting above all is proposing devastating cuts to the effort to reduce fuels in our dangerously overgrown forests. We cut back on the most important action we can take to ease wildfire danger, while we sit back and hope that shutting down a coal plant might have a beneficial effect in some future century. Then, the critics of our ludicrous Congress will chip in, noting that gridlock and the automatic budget cuts that result have reduced our capacity to fight western wildfires, to the point where some experts say we should give up and let them burn.
The deaths in Arizona don’t easily fit any argument. The Southwest is still suffering from drought, and it was very hot, but the monsoon storms that sparked the Yarnell Hill fire are a yearly feature of Arizona summers. The strong and well-trained firefighters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were local, not federal employees, so federal budgets had no direct effect. And they were not in an overgrown forest, but hilly scrub-and-chaparral country, trapped between ridges when a swirling thunderstorm turned its 45 mph winds 180 degrees.
But not far from Yarnell Hill the forest is overgrown. Years of fire suppression combined with the end of timber harvests have made forests thick and dry and diseased across the West. People know it, scientists study it, wildfires grow more severe as they sweep through the bone-dry thickets, and yet the one federal program to do something about it is wasting away. President Obama’s budget request for 2014 asks $296 million for hazardous fuels reduction in federal forests. That compares with $502 million Congress appropriated in 2012, which itself was a cut. The Forest Service treated 1.87 million acres in 2012, barely enough to keep up with the biomass on 120 million acres at 10 times its historic state. The budget proposed for 2014 would cut that to a piddling 685,000 acres.
Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mark Udall of Colorado and James Risch of Idaho sent a letter to the administration June 28 calling for action. They say cuts to the hazardous fuels program appear to be at least partly the result of a baffling ideology. “Our understanding is that these cuts were based on OMB’s continued skepticism about the efficacy of hazardous fuels treatments. We wholeheartedly disagree with OMB on this point,” the senators said.
“Across the West, the fires are getting bigger, they are getting hotter, and there isn’t the focus on reducing hazardous fuel on the ground,” Wyden told the Gannett Washington Bureau. “The bureaucracy essentially pilfers money from the prevention fund to use those dollars to fight the fire.”
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said that OMB told this staff “There’s no evidence that hazardous fuels reduction reduces catastrophic fires.” Simpson’s response was, “What? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.