Wildfire Threat Persists, Especially Out West, Fire Officials Warn (1)

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By Sam McQuillan and Dean Scott

The U.S. should brace for another costly wildfire season this summer—possibly as expensive and potentially life-threatening as last year’s, federal fire officials said.

Top Interior Department and Agriculture Department officials warned the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee June 5 to expect another challenging summer of wildfires, particularly in the West. About 1.7 million acres have already burned so far in 2018—mostly in the Southern, Southwestern, and Rocky Mountain regions, Victoria Christiansen, the Forest Service’s interim chief, told the committee.

That’s roughly on par with the U.S. fire damage at this point last year, and there is an “above average potential for significant wildfire activity” this summer in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, she said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the Energy Committee’s chairman, said greater use of technology like unmanned aircraft should play a larger role in detecting, mapping, and perhaps “even helping to contain wildfires.”

Operating and maintaining drones and training related personnel is far cheaper, she said, and “helps reduce risks for pilots, crews, and firefighters.”

The annual costs of battling blazes continue to mount, according to Jeffery Rupert, the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire director. He said the Forest Service and the Interior Department together spent a record $2.9 billion in 2017 to suppress wildfires across the nation.

Fifty-three civilians and 14 firefighters were killed in wildfires in 2017, in addition to 21 deaths from landslides and other “debris flows” made worse when high-intensity rainfall follows on the heels of wildfires, according to Rupert’s prepared testimony.

More than 12,000 buildings were destroyed in fire-related incidents last year, including nearly 8,100 residences and more than 200 commercial buildings, Rupert said.

Aircraft Lacking

In 2017 firefighters requested but did not receive support from aircraft equipped with firefighting chemicals 371 times because none was available.

Christiansen explained air tankers are prioritized based on the severity of a fire. Additionally the Department of Agriculture has access to seven backup tankers, which come from the Department of Defense. It also has the ability to request additional capacity from Canada during the fire season.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, expressed concern for the 35 percent shift in air tanker contracts from exclusive use to call-when-needed, which is more expensive per day. “What I’m trying to understand is how we’re going to supplant that for resources that you could have,” she said.

Christiansen said the Agriculture Department plans to more closely monitor expenses and how much it may actually need call-when-needed tankers, without sacrificing a valuable firefighting resource.

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