Tipton: Pending legislation could help with wildfire prevention and response efforts (column)
I recently traveled with Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Cory Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet to Durango to speak with the dedicated people on the ground working around the clock to contain the 416 fire.
The firefighters, coordinating officials and volunteers are doing a great job, and we cannot begin to thank them enough for their hard work. Due to their efforts, not one single structure has been lost and no real danger has been posed to the neighboring towns.
During our trip to Durango, we walked down Main Street to visit many of the small businesses, hear from the owners and shop locally. If there was one key takeaway from this visit, then it was that Durango and the surrounding communities are still very much open for business and ready for the influx of tourism that the summer months bring.
I would encourage everyone who was planning to visit this area during this summer to keep their travel plans. Southwest Colorado is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, and there is still so much to experience here.
As soon as the fire began, officials began to notice civilian drones flying overhead, trying to capture photos and footage. These drones directly interfere with aerial firefighting efforts and pose a risk to aircraft. Every time one is spotted, aircraft are forced to leave the scene rather than continue to fight the fire. In turn, the firefighters on the ground are left without the air support they may need to create an exit route in the event of an emergency.
To address this problem, Sen. Gardner and I have introduced the Securing Airspace For Emergency Responders Act, which will make it a federal crime for an individual to fly a drone over a wildfire without permission from the Forest Service or designated local official.
Many wildfires begin because years of forest mismanagement have allowed dead and dying trees and unnaturally thick undergrowth to build up, creating a tinderbox of volatile material that burns unnaturally hot and fast when ignited. Instead of working to remove the dead and downed material that serves as a fuel source for these fires, most of the U.S. Forest Service’s resources are spent combating wildfires, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.” This approach clearly isn’t working, and I believe that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive.
Last year, the House took steps in the right direction. We passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act, a bill that provides the Forest Service with the necessary tools to immediately begin removing dead wood so the overall health of our forests can begin to improve. It would also allow the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to submit requests to the president for an emergency declaration for wildfire on federal lands.
This means dangerous wildfires would be treated like any other natural disaster and receive support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This bill is awaiting consideration in the Senate, and I encourage my colleagues to support it.
The 2018 Omnibus legislation, which was signed into law in March, also provided the Forest Service with additional tools to proactively manage forest health. Perhaps most importantly, the bill included a fix to the practice of “fire-borrowing.”
Under a new funding structure for the Forest Service’s firefighting budget beginning in 2020, $2.25 billion in new budget authority will be available to the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior for wildfire response, so if firefighting costs exceed $1.01 billion in any given year, then the Forest Service and Department of the Interior will no longer need to borrow from other accounts to fight catastrophic fires. They will be able to tap into the new budget authority, similar to how other natural disasters are treated. The money available will increase by $100 million each year until 2027.
Wildfires are a normal part of life in the West, but I think we can do more to prevent them from occurring in the future.
U.S. Rep Scott R. Tipton represents Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.