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WATCH: DeGette advocates plan for wildfire pollution control

Author: Tom Ramstack - September 14, 2018 - Updated: September 27, 2018

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In this June 6 photo, the 416 Fire burns down Hermosa Cliffs above U.S. Highway 550 on the southeast side of the fire near Hermosa. (Photo by Jerry McBride/Durango Herald via AP)

WASHINGTON — Efforts to control wildfires always will fail until the government develops a long-term plan to prevent forest fires and is willing to fund it, Colorado U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette said Thursday.

DeGette was speaking during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment hearing.

Congress is trying to improve methods to control air pollution as global warming deepens health risks from worsening summer wildfire seasons.

“There’s no one solution,” DeGette, D-Denver, said.

Current wildfire control focuses on controlled burns to prevent bigger fires and clearing out dry underbrush that could fuel the flames.

DeGette said the methods are largely ineffective.

“It’s millions and millions of acres that we’re talking about,” DeGette said. “There is no way, even if we had adequate funding, we could go in and clear out this wood.”

A leading proposal comes from the U.S. Forest Service, which recommends wider use of heavy equipment to clear out vegetation and to thin dense forests. The Forest Service also recommends more timber sales and prescribed burning by fire managers.

DeGette displayed photographs of forests in Colorado. Many dead trees littered the ground.

“That’s Ponderosa Pine,” DeGette said. “It was all killed by the pine beetle.”

Similar scenes of deadwood are spread throughout Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states. DeGette called it “a miracle” that forest acreage like the kind in her photographs had not burned already.

“We have to think about long-term planning,” she said.

The Colorado fire season reached the second worst in history before the end of August in terms of acreage burned. Five of the fires this year were among the state’s 20 biggest.

“We couldn’t see the Front Range for most of August in Denver because of the smoke,” DeGette said.

A Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report in July showed air quality is improving since the 1980s everywhere in the United States except the Pacific Northwest. The report blamed carbon particulate matter in the air from wildfires as the main culprit.

Wildfires can cause air quality to be five to 15 times worse than an average day, according to a 2013 report from the scientific research and reporting service Climate Central. The link to respiratory illnesses and early death is known but has not yet been counted exactly.

Mary Anderson, an Idaho Department of Environmental Quality program manager, told the House subcommittee that Idaho’s air quality from wildfires has been getting consistently worse.

“The public now experiences smoke impacts throughout the summer every year, with periods of ‘Very Unhealthy’ to ‘Hazardous’ air quality conditions,” Anderson said in her testimony.

In response, the state has adopted a “Wildfire Smoke Response Protocol” for environmental regulators to monitor air quality and to recommend health actions to members of the public. The actions commonly include holding events indoors, where smoke is less likely to be a health risk.

Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, recommended wildfire prevention strategies similar to those used by the U.S. Forest Service but also more funding to control insect and tree disease infestations. Insects and diseases can kill trees and underbrush, which can become fuel for fires as they dry in hot weather.

Annual carbon emissions from U.S. wildfires “are equivalent to the emissions of 34 [to] 63 million passenger vehicles or [2 to 4 percent] of total U.S. carbon emissions,” O’Mara said in his testimony.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack