As I write this article, wildfires have once again covered much of Montana in a thick layer of unhealthy smoke. There are 25 active fires burning 250,000 acres from Hardin to Troy. Even if you don’t see the flames, the smoke and poor visibility is hard to ignore. Yet, ignoring the issue and letting politics get in the way of action is exactly the problem in Washington, DC.
Last year, fires across the west burned a record 10+ million acres and nearly 18,000 structures. The cost to taxpayers was in the billions and the loss of life and habitat tragic. Unfortunately, we are on track to surpass that grim marker in 2021. The Forest Service estimates a backlog of 80 million acres of unhealthy forest in need of restoration and 63 million acres have a dangerously high fire risk. When Department of Interior lands are added to the mix, the scale of forest mismanagement from years of neglect is staggering.
There is little doubt that the fire season is longer and drought conditions and elevated temperatures have created a perfect storm. Everyone should agree that the federal government can – and must – do more to restore the health of our forests to be more resilient against catastrophic wildfires, regardless of where they fall on the issue of climate change. For climate change advocates, the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by fires cannot be ignored. Dryer and hotter conditions should encourage active management rather than offer an excuse for the destruction of habitat and waste of renewable resources. The good news is, there are common sense solutions that can be quickly enacted if Congress had the resolve and leadership to get it done.
Yes, under the previous administration, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the “wildfire funding fix” which treated wildfires like other natural disasters, allocated more money for suppression, and provided more resources toward wildfire fighting and response. Addressing the cost of fighting fires was helpful, but the real solution is using best science and better management to help prevent wildfires in the first place.