Earlier this year, I read about the decision to eliminate the $500 million wildfire reserve fund established in the wake of the horrific California wildfires of 2003, an event which quickly exhausted the regular funds available for fighting fires and required emergency funding to completely extinguish the fires. I wrote a letter to California Senator Diane Feinstein, a firm proponent of wildland fire mitigation, about my concerns. She responded as follows:
Thank you for writing to express your concern regarding sufficient funding for preventing and fighting fires in California. I appreciate hearing from you and apologize for the delay in my response.
As you may know, I am very concerned about the large amount of lands that are currently at high risk of unnatural fire, especially in California. I want to ensure that we are doing everything possible to treat the hazardous fuels build up that helped fuel many of the catastrophic fires in the West during recent fire seasons, and prevent such fires in the future. As a strong supporter of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, I believe this program protects our forests from catastrophic fire by expediting the thinning of hazardous fuels and at the same time provides the first legal protection for old-growth trees.
Through a bi-partisan agreement, the Forest Service Firefighting Reserve Fund received the full $500 million funding in the Fiscal Year 2006 Interior Appropriations bill. Unfortunately, the President’s supplemental request stripped this funding from the Firefighting Reserve Fund. Over my objections, Congress agreed to this part of the President’s supplemental request, and the Firefighting Reserve Fund has not been funded for this upcoming year. Please know that as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I value hearing your input and will continue to expend every effort in this upcoming year to obtain adequate funding for fighting fires in California.
It’s a tragedy when the federal government learns a lesson the hard way (as it did after the 2003 California wildfires) then quickly forgets it a couple of years later because they need money to cover the costs of their mistakes. I tracked the progress of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act through Congress and it was an uphill battle to get the legislation approved in the first place. How many more disasters involving the massive destruction of homes and forests (not to mention lives lost) do the people of the US have to suffer before the federal government learns to leave appropriate emergency funds in place? I can see it’s going to be an interesting year ahead…