Ruidoso News: Sen. Heinrich: Disasters don't end with the fire, flood work remains

Lincoln County: A role model for future multi-agency disaster work

By:  Erik LeDuc

When a fire's out the disaster's not over -- at least not for those living in the Southwest, where an annual threat of flooding may linger for years after a burn -- a concern that precipitated a visit from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) on Saturday.

"One of the things I wanted to do was make sure the local community understands that we get that after an event, whether it's the Little Bear Fire or the White Fire, when the fire's out, it's not the end," he said. "The impacts go on for months or years and there's still a lot of work that needs to be done in conjunction with the city, county, Forest Service and the feds, (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Army Corps (of Engineers) and that we're engaged for the long haul on those issues."

During his tour, Heinrich said discussions with state, local and federal representatives had focused primarily on the post-fire damages, the "impacts to roads" from runoff and washouts, clogged drainages and acequias, flooding, bacterial blooms in waterways and the many other issues that crop up after.

Heinrich also took that opportunity to compliment the USFS' Burned Area Response Team for their seeding and other mitigation work on the recently burned area.

"It's encouraging to see the grass coming back and starting to hold that soil down on the hillsides," he said. "I think it's a matter of managing the monsoon until that watershed is healthy enough that we don't see those big floods on a regular basis."

But then work runs into the problem of jurisdiction -- the BAER team can only work on Forest Service land, the Bureau of Land Management can only treat their tracts and the same applies throughout county, municipal and private lands.

"I think it's going to be a process of trying to mitigate post-fire impacts across multiple jurisdictions," he said. "We were recently up in Pecos, looking at that fire as well and I suspect we're going to be doing a lot of this in the future as we try to make sure the restoration happens."

Yet finding funding for restoration and preventative projects becomes much more difficult after an emergency declaration, active for a specific disaster, dries up. For Lincoln County, that means waiting until the next disaster actually happens before agencies can request more emergency funding, said Michele Caskey, public information officer for the county.

"All of the action that Lincoln County, village of Ruidoso and city of Alamogordo -- all of the actions they took last summer (on flooding) were in response to that specific event, that one," she said. "That has been covered through FEMA. That covered everything that happened last year, now we're dealing with this year. When you're looking at FEMA, they'll give you money in response to a disaster -- their money doesn't plan for something immanent. Mostly we're responding as the threats are posed. Until the watersheds are full of debris, until there's some action to take, we're kind of treading water."

The county is continuing to look at other funding aid options to reduce the flooding risk, such as thinning treatments on watershed areas that would preemptively remove debris that could later clog streams, she added.

"Part of my interest is in facilitating the process with FEMA so we can get the sediment out of Bonito Lake in case their are big rain events in the canyon there," Heinrich said. "The federal, state, local and county folks are able to continue to work together across jurisdictions, which is always more challenging after an emergency declaration is gone. You have to look at it as one event that may last several years."

Heinrich cited Bonito Lake road as an example of successful cooperation.

"Part of it's a county road, part of it's a Forest Service road, but we've got to work together to continue to make sure the roads stay open, that we deal with the flood impacts over multiple jurisdictions. We don't want to lose that team approach because it's the year after the initial fire."

Bi-partisan support

To properly react to natural disasters and, more importantly, to be proactive against future damage, agencies need to formalize cooperative agreements -- something Heinrich said he and others are working towards finding bi-partisan support for. Though officials in many seats may be wrangling over partisan issues, others are reaching across the table for a middle ground, he said.

"On the Senate side, I think there are some places to be encouraged by the bi-partisan work going on," he said. "The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which I sit on, has produced an awful lot of legislation by regular order, a lot of what has gone to the floor of the Senate has come out of that committee because the members of that committee, particularly the chair (Ron Wyden, D-Ore.) and ranking member (Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska), work hard to not fall into the same rut of partisanship. That's been encouraging to me. There are places where things are absolutely not working and places where things are working as they're supposed to. Learning from and making sure we don't fall into that trap of 'you can't work with the other side' is very important and I very much value my relationships with Republicans on both the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and on the Intel Committee. We've been able to work on both those committees across partisan lines."

Unfortunately, the evolution of agency interactions is a slow process, especially as the environmental conditions to which they must react have changed dramatically, Heinrich said.

"We have learned a lot in the last few years," he said. "Some part of it's by example, especially here in Lincoln County, of how we can work together across jurisdictional boundaries. We haven't had that sort of team approach in the past and we want to take those lessons and make sure that we learn them and find where the places are where things aren't working, and whether there are potential policy or legislative solutions to make those things work better."

Part of that might be modeling future state responses after the watershed recovery group that formed in the wake of the Little Bear Fire, Caskey added.

"They've been using the model of what we did last summer in some of the other areas in the state that are going through the same thing we did last year (with flooding)," she said. "They're trying to create that inter-agency, multi-agency response."

She added that a report on the management of post-fire impacts has been submitted to the Department of Homeland Security for review and possible application. The county Office of Emergency Services, state and federal agencies, private contractors and others had worked through a standard incident command structure seen at disasters nationwide to streamline interactions and the chain of command during the events, as well as preserving the structure to have them ready at a moment's notice for the next rain event.

"From what I understand, that type of multi-agency response and coordination is somewhat unprecedented," she said. "Operating that group, on that incident command structure, that was one of the first times that had been done to pre-plan for an emergency, because we knew there was going to be flooding."

Industry assistance

One option promoted by USFS Chief Tom Tidwell and others to help the forestry issue is further involving private industry, though specifics have yet to be laid on the table.

"It's a very challenging problem to make thinning economically viable," Heinrich said. "Oftentimes you have costs of $1,000 to $2,000 per acre and we're talking about a small-diameter product that does not have an obvious market."

Some specialized markets do exist, such as pellet-producers and horse bedding chips, that have found a niche, but "not on the scale that we need," he said. "We need to do more work to make it economical to remove the small-diameter trees that really can help the forest health and fire problem. We're not there yet -- there's a lot more work that needs to go on with that side of things."

One further option to stimulate the small-diameter industry is the budding biofuels initiatives, though that too is just another piece of the overall puzzle, he said. "They have to be the right size for the local conditions, but they are absolutely a piece of how we ought to be solving these issues."

Balancing more than budget

Heinrich also expressed his concern of the USFS' rapidly ballooning fire suppression budget, which is taking a larger and larger chunk out of resources that otherwise could be spent on prevention and mitigation, a concern shared by other senators on the ENR committee.

Senators Wyden, Murkowski, Tom Udall (D-Colo.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho) sent a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior asking the "administration to create an action plan to fully fund prevention efforts such as hazardous fuels reduction, in addition to fire suppression efforts. Currently the administration takes funds from other non-fire programs to pay for fire suppression costs -- a practice called fire borrowing," a press release on the committee's website states, with the senators further calling the practice "nonsensical" and cost-ineffective.

Heinrich spoke along similar lines, calling for a stop to the raiding of fire-prevention budgets.

"One of the things that I think we should be doing now, what I've said to the director of the Forest Service in hearings a few weeks ago, the fire budget seems to be eating up their capacity for doing other things," he said. "We need to make sure we protect the part of their budget where they can do fire prevention treatments -- thinning, prescribed fire -- all the different sorts of things that you do to mitigate those impacts before they happen. Because the fire seasons have been so severe over the last few years, those parts of those budgets are squeezed as the fire suppression part has grow. A dollar spent on prevention can save a lot of emergency funds on down the road and I don't believe we've struck that right balance yet, and that's something that needs to change on the Department of Agriculture budget."

The release also cites expectations for a dramatic decrease in treated acres -- 685,000 acres are expected to be treated in 2014, about a third of the 1.87 million acres that were treated in 2012.

"Just 10 years ago, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was over 40 percent," the senators wrote.

As for the rest of the budgetary cuts expected to hit the service from the 2014 President's budget, the senators said their understanding was that the cuts "were based on (the Office of Budget and Management's) continued skepticism about the efficacy of hazardous fuel treatments. We whole-heartedly disagree with OMB on this point," the senators wrote.

They further criticized the department for forcing the USFS to improperly implement the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement act. The act, passed to law in 1999, originally was intended to "end the practice of raiding non-fire accounts -- including fire prevention programs -- to pay for fire suppression when the agency runs over its firefighting budget," the release stated.

"Instead of funding the FLAME account in addition to the 10-year average cost of suppression, the account is funded as part of the 10-year average cost of suppression," the senators wrote -- what was meant to be an over-budget fallback has become a part of the regular budget.

Just like the political and fiscal fields, fire behavior also is shifting.

"The climate is changing, there's no question," Heinrich said. "We're about a degree warmer than we were 50 years ago. The doesn't sound like a lot, but in a ponderosa pine forest it makes a difference in fire behavior. We're seeing fire behavior that is not the same behavior that we saw 20 years ago. I think we're facing new challenges and will have to be aggressive in finding new ways to meet those challenges."

That sort of necessary new interaction may be further seen in Lincoln County through the members of the Little Bear Fire Forest Reform Coalition, a blend of area residents and officials that engage in discussion on the future of forestry in the area, he added.

"It's really encouraging to see people working together from all different backgrounds and representing different constituents but understanding that we're all in this together," he said. "That's something we can take to other places and say, 'this is a positive example.'"