In Rare Public Appearance, Smokey Bear Ignores Climate Change ... Just Waves

Rural America In These Times

September 8, 2017—Smokey, a mascot for environmental responsibility, waves at Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a speech about wildfires.

On Sep­tem­ber 14, the U.S. For­est Ser­vice, which man­ages 193 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands, announced that the cost of fight­ing this season’s mas­sive wild­fires in the Pacif­ic North­west, North­ern Rock­ies and else­where had exceed­ed $2 bil­lion dol­lars — mak­ing 2017 the agency’s most expen­sive year on record.

Accord­ing to the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA), which over­sees the For­est Service:

At the peak of West­ern fire sea­son, there were three times as many uncon­tained large fires on the land­scape as com­pared to the five-year aver­age, and almost three times as many per­son­nel assigned to fires. More than 27,000 peo­ple sup­port­ed fire­fight­ing activ­i­ties dur­ing peak West­ern fire sea­son. The For­est Ser­vice has been at Pre­pared­ness Lev­el 5, the high­est lev­el, for 35 days as of Sep­tem­ber 14, 2017. Approx­i­mate­ly 2.2 mil­lion acres of Nation­al For­est sys­tem lands have burned in that time.” 

In order to cov­er the cost of con­tin­u­ous fire activ­i­ty” and an extend­ed length of the fire sea­son,” the For­est Ser­vice has been forced to bor­row funds oth­er­wise allot­ted for its land man­age­ment and fire pre­ven­tion ini­tia­tives. With­out spec­u­lat­ing as to why we’re see­ing more and more wild­fires (i.e. avoid­ing the sub­ject of cli­mate change entire­ly), Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Son­ny Per­due and Tony Tooke, the recent­ly appoint­ed Chief of the For­est Ser­vice, are call­ing on Con­gress to change the way the For­est Service’s emer­gency fire­fight­ing efforts are funded. 

For­est Ser­vice spend­ing on fire sup­pres­sion in recent years has gone from 15 per­cent of the bud­get to 55 per­cent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep bor­row­ing from funds that are intend­ed for for­est man­age­ment,” said Per­due at a recent press con­fer­ence. We end up hav­ing to hoard all of the mon­ey that is intend­ed for fire pre­ven­tion, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actu­al­ly fight fires. It means we can’t do the pre­scribed burn­ing, har­vest­ing, or insect con­trol to pre­vent leav­ing a fuel load in the for­est for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to man­age the For­est Service.”

Per­due says he would pre­fer that Con­gress treat major wild­fires the same as oth­er dis­as­ters, like hur­ri­canes and tor­na­dos that are cov­ered by emer­gency funds, so that the agen­cy’s fire pre­ven­tion pro­grams are not raid­ed. Cur­rent­ly, the For­est Service’s fire sup­pres­sion bud­get is fund­ed at a rolling ten-year aver­age of appro­pri­a­tions. This fis­cal year, Con­gress approved addi­tion­al fund­ing — almost $1.6 bil­lion total — but it still wasn’t enough.

We are break­ing records in terms of dol­lars spent, acres of Nation­al For­est land burned, and the increased dura­tion of fires,” says For­est Ser­vice Chief Tony Tooke, who recent­ly toured charred parts of the coun­try with Son­ny Per­due. Our fire­fight­ers are brave men and women, who risk their own lives to pro­tect life and prop­er­ty. We must give them every oppor­tu­ni­ty to do their jobs effec­tive­ly through bet­ter man­age­ment of the forests in the first place.”

U.S. For­est Ser­vice fire­fight­ers bat­tle a blaze in the Rocky Moun­tains. (Image: fs​.usda​.gov)

The USDA’s Sep­tem­ber 14 press release reads:

Because the fire sea­sons are longer and con­di­tions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire sup­pres­sion bud­get aver­age keeps ris­ing, chew­ing up a greater per­cent­age of the total For­est Ser­vice bud­get each year. The agency has had to bor­row from pre­ven­tion pro­grams to cov­er fire sup­pres­sion costs. With three weeks left in the fis­cal year, the For­est Ser­vice has spent all of the mon­ey Con­gress appro­pri­at­ed for fire sup­pres­sion, which means the agency has bor­rowed from oth­er pro­grams with­in its bud­get to meet this year’s actu­al fire sup­pres­sion costs.

Perdue’s renewed call for Con­gress to change the way the For­est Service’s fire­fight­ing efforts are fund­ed echoes a speech he made one week ear­li­er, at Tony Tooke’s swear­ing in ceremony:

I’ve had seri­ous con­cerns about an issue. And I want to be very clear about it. You can have the right lead­er­ship. You can have the right peo­ple. I believe we have the right lead­er­ship. I believe we have the right peo­ple. I believe that we have the right process­es and the right pro­ce­dures of attack­ing and fight­ing fires. But if you don’t have the resources and the means of depend­able fund­ing, that’s an issue.

Every year, when we have to take, in the For­est Ser­vice, and hoard our appro­pri­at­ed dol­lars in order to have mon­ey to fight the fires, where we know they are going to be insuf­fi­cient, that’s wrong. We need with all of our heart and strength and mind, Tony, to appeal to the appro­pri­a­tors in Con­gress, and the law writ­ers, to fix the fire bor­row­ing prob­lem once and for all.”

Here’s a video of Per­due’s Sep­tem­ber 8 remarks:

(Video: usda​.gov)

Two days lat­er, a Sep­tem­ber 10 hur­ri­cane and wild­fire update from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice (FWS) read:

In the West, dozens of fires con­tin­ue to burn out of con­trol in Mon­tana, Ore­gon and oth­er parts of the region suf­fer­ing from severe drought over the sum­mer. In total, more than 200 Ser­vice employ­ees are deployed in response to these fires, which have already burned more than 8 mil­lion acres and destroyed over 500 homes and many oth­er struc­tures. Although coor­di­nat­ed fed­er­al and state fire­fight­ing efforts have con­tained four major fires, anoth­er 48 fires con­tin­ue to burn out of con­trol. And just in the past few days, 172 sep­a­rate new wild­fires have been report­ed to the Nation­al Inter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter in Boise — includ­ing eight sig­nif­i­cant blazes.

For a dai­ly report from the Nation­al Inter­a­gency Fire Cen­ter (NIFC) on fire activ­i­ty in the Unit­ed States, click here. And for addi­tion­al data regard­ing the eco­nom­ic costs of this sea­son’s wild­fires, click here.

This blog’s mis­sion is to pro­vide the pub­lic ser­vice of help­ing make the issues that rur­al Amer­i­ca is grap­pling with part of nation­al discourse.
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