How the Biden administration can help prevent wildfires
I am encouraged to see that President Biden has started discussions on how his administration can be involved in the growing crisis of wildfires across the West. I represent Northeastern California in Congress, including the towns of Paradise, Magalia, Concow, Yankee Hill, and Berry Creek that were destroyed by wildfires in 2018 and 2020, so wildfire prevention has always been a top priority for me.
I have two suggestions for President Biden to help prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Firstly, it is imperative that President Biden direct the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to put out fires immediately upon ignition. This may sound silly, like something they are already doing, but those of us who live in rural areas know that bureaucrats at the USFS have a “let it burn” mentality and direct their firefighting crews to simply monitor the fires in most cases. Take, for example, the Lava Fire that is currently burning in my district. It ignited on Thursday, June 24 and was reported to local authorities by a Union Pacific railway engineer at approximately 6:30 p.m. At that point, the 400 square foot fire could and should have been put out immediately. The USFS spent Thursday and Friday fighting the fire, but left at 4 p.m. on Friday, thinking they had suppressed the fire. Less than an hour later, the fire reignited and at that point, USFS did not commit the resources needed to extinguish the fire. The same engineer traveled by the fire again at 11 p.m. and saw two USFS pickup trucks with no fire crews in sight. The fire had grown to several acres at that point. By Sunday afternoon, wind and dry heat caused the fire to explode becoming unmanageable. Currently it is 19,680 acres, only 19 percent contained and threatening several towns.
This is unfortunately just one instance of the many tragic wildfires that have been allowed to grow and destroy forests and towns due to USFS’s hands off policy. President Biden can make an immediate positive change to prevent the catastrophic wildfires by directing the USFS to put fires out directly on ignition and ensure that they are completely out rather than watching them burn or monitoring them from afar until they become unmanageable and deadly.
Secondly, I encourage President Biden to work in a bipartisan manner with members of Congress to reform the laws regarding environmental and endangered species litigation. In particular, the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act are utilized by environmentalists to block nearly every forest thinning project or timber salvage sale that the U.S. Forest Service proposes. Litigation is the No. 1 issue that prevents proper forest management.
In the post-fire cleanup of the 2018 Ranch Fire in Mendocino National Forest, the Forest Service wanted to do a 7,000 acre roadside salvage project to remove hazardous trees that were at risk of falling on the road to make it safe to allow the public back into the forest. Keep in mind that the Ranch Fire burned 410,203 acres, and this project was less than 2 percent of the area burned, but it was still blocked by a lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Information Center that claimed that this project would pose a threat to wildlife habitat.
Over 68 million acres have burned in the last decade and over 10 million acres burned in 2020 alone. The decline of responsible timber harvesting and the lack of active forest management has created overstocked forests that fuel the wildfires in the West and resulted in the closure of the majority of California’s lumber mills. The mills are being eliminated when they are the very tools needed to help get our overgrown forests under control.
Until everyone, regardless of party, gets serious about fixing our broken forest management system, we will continue to see catastrophic fires. I stand ready to work on bipartisan legislation that will reform our irresponsible policy that allows wildfires to rage in the West. We must commit to a wide range of proposals. Including those that the Biden administration outlined and reforming our laws to prevent frivolous lawsuits that delay or even cancel responsible forest management.
Congressman Doug LaMalfa is a lifelong farmer representing California’s First Congressional District, including Butte, Glenn, Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Placer, Plumas, Shasta, Sierra, Siskiyou and Tehama Counties.