Fed sends $930 million to contain wildfire ‘crisis’ in western US

BILLS, Mon. (AP) — The U.S. is providing $930 million to reduce wildfire threats in 10 western states by clearing trees and undergrowth from national forests, the Biden administration announced Thursday as officials fight to Protecting communities from destructive infernos made worse by climate change.

As part of a strategy now entering its second year, the US Forest Service is trying to stop runaway fires that start on public lands from rampaging through communities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledged that the labor shortage plaguing other sectors of the economy is hampering the agency’s wildfire efforts.

He warned that “draconian” budget cuts by some Republicans who control the US House of Representatives could also undermine the Democratic government’s plans. Its goal is to reduce wildfire risk on nearly 80,000 square miles (200,000 square kilometers) of public and private land over the next decade.

The work is expected to cost up to $50 billion. Last year’s climate and infrastructure bills combined contributed about $5 billion to the effort.

“There’s a big if,” Vilsack said. “We need a good partner in Congress.”

He added that fires on public lands will continue to threaten the West, having burned about 115,000 square miles (297,000 square kilometers) — an area larger than Arizona — and about 80,000 homes, businesses and, according to the government, over the past decade other structures have destroyed Statistics and the non-partisan research group Headwaters Economics.

Nearly 19,000 of those buildings were burned in the 2018 bonfire that killed 85 people in Paradise, California.

“It’s not about whether these forests are burning or not,” Vilsack said. “The crisis is upon us.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bruce Westerman said he was glad the Biden administration was taking “long-overdue action” and streamlining forest management rules. But Westerman questioned why significantly more money is being spent this year, despite new projects covering fewer hectares compared to last year, according to administrative records.

“The Forest Service is still recklessly spending valuable tax dollars with little or no accountability,” the Arkansas Republican said in a statement.

The sites slated for release in 2023 cover much of Southern California, home to 25 million people. the Klamath River Basin on the Oregon-California border; San Carlos Apache Reservation lands in Arizona; and the Wasatch area of ​​northern Utah, a tourist magnet with seven ski resorts. Additional locations are in Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Washington State, Colorado, New Mexico and Montana.

The idea is to remove many trees and other combustible material from “hotspots,” which represent only a small portion of fire-prone areas but account for about 80% of the risk to communities.

Some critics said the administration remained too focused on stopping fires — a near-impossible goal — and not enough money and resources going to communities and vulnerable people, including the elderly and those with medical conditions or disabilities.

“Given the magnitude of how much needs to be done, we’re only scratching the surface,” said Headwaters Economics researcher Kimiko Barrett. “The risks are increasing on a scale and scale that we have never seen in the past. You see entire neighborhoods being devastated.”

According to Vilsack, the projects announced so far will help reduce wildfire risk in about 200 communities in the western United States

Warming temperatures have parched the region’s landscape and caused insect infestations that have claimed the lives of millions of trees – ideal conditions for massive wildfires.

Impacts extend across North America, with plumes of smoke at the height of wildfire season in the US and Canada sometimes causing unhealthy pollution thousands of miles away on the east coast.

The Forest Service’s work over the past year included tree thinning and controlled burnings on 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers) of forest across the country, Vilsack said.

“We’re very purposeful when we say, ‘This is where we need to go to reduce the risk,'” Deputy Forest Service chief Chris French told the AP.

But a key element of the government’s strategy — intentionally setting small fires to reduce the amount of vegetation that can burn in a large fire — has already encountered problems: The program was suspended three months last spring after a devastating wildfire Fired by the federal government in nearby Las Vegas, New Mexico, burned more than 500 square miles (1,295 kilometers) in the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

It was the state’s largest fire on record, and several hundred homes were destroyed. Experts have said the environmental damage will last for generations.

Congress has approved nearly $4 billion in aid for victims of the fire, including $1.5 billion in the massive spending bill passed last month.

“If you’re a community, you don’t just have to worry about nature’s fires, you also have government fires to worry about,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the advocacy group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “New Mexico taught us that.”