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Silver City Sun-News: Op-Ed: We can’t afford to put wildfires on the back burner

As the seasons change in New Mexico, it’s a good time to reflect on what might have been possible during this wet and green year to prevent future devastating wildfires if we had a fire budget that made sense.

Wildfire seasons have grown longer and more intense, forcing the U.S. Forest Service to cut back on other essential programs to pay for fighting fires – many times taking away from the very forest health and restoration projects that help prevent catastrophic fires in the first place. This is a unique problem because wildfires in the West are not treated the same way in the federal budget as other natural disasters like tornados in the Midwest, hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, and floods in the Northeast.

This means emergency federal funds that help communities with those disasters are not made available to help agencies and Western communities cope with the costs of fighting wildfires. Instead, when the costs of fighting fires exceed the regular fire budget, the difference must be made up by transferring funds from other forest health and restoration programs, a practice known as fire borrowing. In the Southwestern Region, which includes New Mexico and Arizona, $14.1 million was pulled from our forest management efforts this year to cover fire suppression costs.

Fire borrowing delayed a grant to Santa Clara, Ohkay Owingeh, and Nambe pueblos to help them repair watersheds that supply their drinking and agricultural water. The Forest Service postponed the Moya-Oso Project in the Santa Fe National Forest — a collaborative project with New Mexico Game & Fish to reduce vegetation that could fuel future fires. A fire planning and training program for young adults in the White Peak area in Mora and Colfax counties lost its funding.

This year was the most expensive fire season for the Forest Service on record. States like California, Washington and Montana saw some of their worst fire seasons in recorded history. For the first time ever, more than half of the Forest Service’s budget went toward suppressing wildfires. More than 9 million acres and over 2,500 residences burned across the nation. Thirteen wildland firefighters paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of others.

This year’s fires were part of a troubling trend — the six worst recorded wildfire seasons since 1960 all occurred within the last 15 years.

Just 20 years ago, fire suppression made up just 16 percent of the agency’s budget – compared with over 50 percent today. Because fighting fires has eaten up more and more of its budget, the Forest Service has been forced to cut 7,000 forest health and fire prevention staff positions because those resources were instead needed for fire suppression. Put simply, our backward fire budgeting actually worsens our nation’s fire season because funds are taken away from preventing fires to put them out.

When funding decreases for essential maintenance and vegetation management programs, our forests become even more vulnerable to large fires.

Thankfully, more of my colleagues in Congress from both parties have begun to see that this backward and reactionary approach to fighting wildfires isn’t working. I recently visited the Fire Desk and Incident Command Center at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where U.S. Forest Service officials monitor the nation’s fires. What I learned at the briefing made me surer than ever that we need to change the way Congress funds wildfire prevention.

I am working closely with Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, on legislation to allow our federal agencies to draw from disaster and emergency funds during large fire seasons rather than borrow money from their forest restoration programs that help us get out ahead of what causes large blazes.

Our communities rely on our forests for drinking water, for livestock grazing, and to boost our outdoor recreation economy. Many of us live in places that are still recovering from historic wildfires and that continue to face imminent threats of destructive fires each summer. We know the weight of the loss these disasters carry.

Without necessary resources devoted to wildfire suppression and forest restoration programs, we will only set ourselves up for greater disasters. We simply can’t afford to keep putting wildfires on the back burner.

Martin Heinrich, D-Albuquerque, represents New Mexico in the U.S. Senate.