SHERIDAN — The lands making up the West, starting at the Rocky Mountains and stretching to the Pacific Ocean, annually experience the repercussions of fatal wildfires consuming federal Forest Service lands. After wildland fire suppression costs exceeded $2 billion for the 2017 fiscal year, legislators are tuning in to the need for change.

First steps

U.S. Senators John McCain, R-Arizona, and Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, filed an amendment on Oct. 18 to the Senate budget resolution that would require Congress to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire management account, McCain’s website reported. The site said the amendment would allow senators to invoke a budget point of order against the Interior Appropriations Bill if it fails to provide sufficient funding for wildfire suppression using the federal government’s most accurate wildfire budget forecast, called the FLAME Act estimate.

An act presented on bipartisan support, the Wildland Fires Act of 2017, joins the proposed legislation.

The act’s purpose is to “build on the successes of the management policy and cohesive fire strategy established in the FLAME Act of 2009.” The act increases transparency and accountability for the costs of managing wildfires; requires the secretary concerned, either of interior or agriculture, to treat the most at-risk forests to protect at-risk communities and reestablish natural fire regimes; and provides additional funding to communities to enable them to reduce the risks to the communities from wildfires. The act was introduced to Congress on Oct. 19.

A new act

U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and other members of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works heard from Wyoming state forester and administrator of the Wyoming State Forestry Division, Bill Crapser, about the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017. The Act, introduced by Barrasso, works to remove federal litigation for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agencies. This helps expedite and prioritize forest management and prevention efforts, leading to less budget adjustments for fire suppression efforts in the future.

The Bighorn National Forest did not contribute heavily to the last years’ extensive costs but on average spends anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 per year on fire suppression.

“With only five fires and less than 100 acres burned, last year is not an ‘average’ of our fire seasons,” said Bighorn National Forest Fire Management Officer Jon Warder.

Prevention plans

Warder said the Bighorn National Forest crews coordinate with state, county and other federal agencies to conduct prevention measures, including educating school children, the public and visitors about reducing human-caused wildfires, which make up approximately 60 percent of fires on the forest.

“In addition, the Forest has been working for over 10 years to reduce fuels around structures on the Forest to increase the likelihood that those structures would survive a wildfire,” Warder said.

The use of categorical exclusions, or the exclusion from the requirement to prepare an environmental assessment or impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, will reduce time in completing documents, thus aiding in wildfire prevention. Categorical exclusions help carry out forest management activity on National Forest System land.

Crapser said using the categorical exclusions will become most helpful in making decisions on salvaging burned and beetle-killed timber so that the wood still has value when sold. The Bighorn National Forest’s fiscal year 2015 monitoring and evaluation report, published in April 2016, totaled commercial harvest acres of 40 percent of the projected amount to achieve the allowable sale quantity.

Salvaging trees as quickly as possible after a fire helps keep economic value to the trees, reduces fuel for future fires and controls erosion in the area, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service literature review of environmental effects of postfire logging.

A salvage in 2007 in the Bighorns helped the forest meet soil and water quality standards, as well as enhance the aspen groves in the area of Forest Road 168 and west of road 149/201.

Changing course

Crapser believes the act will effectively remove the “burdensome environmental regulations” slowing or eliminating proper management efforts in Wyoming’s forests. By removing the regulations, private, public, state and federal owners of forests will more effectively and efficiently care for the forests on the front end, which would reduce the amount of wildfires and lower the outstanding suppression costs seen this year around the nation.

“Over the last few decades, the Forest Service’s budget for fire suppression has grown from less than 20 percent to more than 50 percent of the agency’s total budget,” Crapser wrote in his testimony. “If trends continue, the vast majority of the Forest Service budget will be consumed fighting fires, leaving limited funding available to improve forest resiliency, which reduces the risk of wildfire and the costs of suppression.”

Wildland-urban interfaces, or residences in and among forest service lands, contribute to the rising costs over the decades. The past government administration put the Forest Service under the Wildland-Urban Interface that focuses USFS efforts on maintaining structures to help prevent forest fires.

Why now?

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue renewed his call for Congress to fix the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded on Sept. 14.

While Forest Service staff cannot comment on proposed legislation, Warder said increased prevention efforts would likely slow severe fires and save more structures in the event of wildfires, with an increase in fuel reduction activities.

“However, this would need combined with the factors of longer fire seasons and more people living in the wildland urban interface,” Warder said.

Because of wildland-urban interface destruction seen in fatal California wildfires this year, acting public affairs specialist for the Bighorn National Forest Sara Evans Kirol said the wildfire issue has become personal to people and might be a cause of the legislature giving the issue attention again at the national level. Until the act moves past the introductory phase, the Forest Service will continue focusing its efforts on wildland-urban interfaces and prevention efforts through education and fuel maintenance.

“If you can do things that help firefighters get in there, do the clearing space around your home and decide what you build your home out of, those are really good things to know,” Evans Kirol said.