Gardner leads call for better technology to fight Western wildfires

Western wildfiresA structure burning on Lightner Creek Road west of Durango on June 28 quickly spread into the surrounding forest, creating the Lightner Creek Fire and burning an estimated 100 acres. (AP Photo/Durango Herald,Jerry McBride)

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, is one of the lawmakers crafting legislation to upgrade technology to help battle Western wildfires.

Members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources could to introduce a bill as soon as next month.

Senators at a hearing last week called for the new technology to help firefighters prevent and extinguish the kinds of wildfires that have ravaged parts of Colorado.

“As of today, 50 percent more acres have already burned this year than normal and yesterday a forecast report was released that predicted the West is likely to experience above normal wildfires over the next month,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said during the hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Said Gardner: “That shouldn’t surprise people because we know exactly what has been trending the last few years.”

Some of the lawmakers want the federal government to ensure funding for fighting wildfires will be less sporadic than now.

Gardner has worked on firefighting issues previously, which included advocating for more secure funding for wildfires.

Cantwell and Gardner hinted the legislative proposal would call for real-time fire mapping and global positioning satellite technology to be used on wildfires. Firefighters could use the equipment to track wildfires and predict their paths as they try to get ahead of them.

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service could be authorized to work with the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting in Rifle to explore possible use of aircraft to fight fires at night.

Similar proposals are pending in the House and Senate. One of them is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would end “fire-borrowing.”

Fire-borrowing refers to a Forest Service practice of pulling funds from non-fire programs when it exhausts the money Congress appropriates to suppress wildfires. Resistance from administrators of the non-fire programs often leaves the Forest Service with inadequate funding to fight large fires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would draw firefighting funds from the same Federal Emergency Management Agency account that pays for relief of other natural disasters, such as floods and tornadoes. As a result, fire suppression efforts would no longer need fire-borrowing.

“I’m hopeful Congress can enact broad wildfire and forestry reform that will end the practice of wildfire borrowing, improve forest management and use the most modern technology possible to advance our nation’s firefighting abilities,” Gardner said in a statement to Colorado Politics.

Four senators who support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act wrote a letter to Senate finance leaders this week asking them to approve the legislation.

“Over the years, we have worked to fix fire-borrowing in any way we could find,” the letter to the Senate Banking Committee said. “Yet year after year, fire season after fire season, the fires continue to worsen and any attempt at a fix gets snarled in Washington politics.”

Witnesses at the Senate hearing this week predicted that wildfire damage will only worsen unless the federal government intervenes to improve firefighting resources.

Bryan Rice, director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, implied that global warming might be a factor in worsening wildfire conditions.

“The cumulative impacts of drought, invasive species and climate variability are creating a landscape more susceptible to devastating wildland fires,” Rice said in his testimony.

“So far this season, we have seen outbreaks of large fires in the Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Northern Rockies and California, as well as individual large fires elsewhere,” Rice told the Senate. “As of August 1st, nearly 39,000 fires have burned almost 5.5 million acres of land.”

Some possible fire prevention efforts, such as spending $15 million to remove dry underbrush that fueled the 2010 Schultz fire near Flagstaff, Ariz., could have prevented damage estimated as high as 10 times greater, he said.

In addition to removing underbrush, he advocated wider use of technologies such as drones, infrared cameras that detect heat from fires and webcams to monitor sites susceptible to wildfires.

Victoria C. Christiansen, a deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said the federal government’s budget is not adequately prepared for wildfires.

“The ongoing erosion of the agency’s non-fire budgets due to the increasing 10-year average cost of fire suppression causes an ongoing shift in resources from land management to fire management,” she said.

Witness testimony during the Senate hearing fits closely with observations from forestry officials in Colorado, where they say the state has spent about $3.6 million so far this year to fight the largest seven wildfires.

Colorado is prepared for most fires, particularly after the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control expanded its use of aerial tankers and high-tech surveillance in 2014, said Vaughn T. Jones, chief of the division’s Wildland Fire Management Section.

“However, we must continually assess our needs, given increased fire occurrence, longer fire seasons, increasing fire costs and changing fuel conditions and fire behavior in our forested areas,” Jones said.

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