On November 9, the White House hosted the Fire Chiefs’ White House Roundtable in conjunction with the U.S. Fire Administration and Vice President Biden. The topic of the event was not only the impacts that climate change is having on wildfire incidence and severity, but also challenges in addressing wildfire risk in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). Homes and communities in the WUI are at a greater risk of wildfire impacts, and at the same time it is more costly to protect these areas from wildfires, compared to forest.
The meeting convened 37 fire chiefs and fire associations from local and tribal communities, counties, states and federal agencies to discuss wildfire-fighting issues faced by the WUI. According to the White House, 60 percent of new home construction since 1990 has taken place in the WUI. Overall, this places 46 million homes and 120 million people in the WUI. The amount of land in this interface seemingly has no signs of slowing – land in the WUI is increasing by 2 million acres per year.
The increased costs and risks associated with wildfire fighting in the WUI is a problem that is putting strain on the already tapped-out U.S. Forest Service budget. The health impacts of increased wildfires is also high – including increased incidence of asthma and cario-pulmonary effects. One study of rural North Carolina estimated the health-related costs of one wildfire would be above $45 million. Between 2000 and 2013, 300 fire fighters have lost their lives fighting wildfires. At the end of the 2015 wildfire season, 9.3 million acres of land had burned, costing billions to property owners and consuming more than half of the U.S. Forest Service’s total budget. Through a process known as “fire borrowing”, the funding for other Forest Service programs has been transferred to wildfire fighting needs.
To halt the dangerous process of fire borrowing, President Obama and numerous Members of Congress have proposed the creation of a separate emergency disaster fund, to be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This fund would address the very worst 1 percent of wildfires. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167 and S.235) has broad bipartisan support, and proponents say it would free up the Forest Service to do its job – manage forests.
Another proposed solution has passed the House, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2467). The bill would block fire borrowing unless the Forest Service exceeded projected outlays, but allow the Forest Service to more expeditiously timber federal lands. Supporters, including the timber industry and a political coalition consisting primarily of Republicans, claim increased timbering in forests will make them less susceptible to forest fire. In a statement of administrative policy, the White House sharply opposed the bill, stating that it would "undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation."
At the White House meeting, two new reports were also released; one by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology on preparing communities in the WUI for wildfires, and the second by the White House’s National Science and Technology Council Subcommittee on Disaster Reduction (NSTC), which examines the coordination that needs to occur between fire scientists and communities. In the Report, NSTC calls for the establishment of a Federal Fire Science Coordination Council to outline gaps in Federal fire science that would support the fire-management community.
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