U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today chaired a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to examine the outlook for the 2019 wildfire season and the nation’s fire management programs.
Murkowski opened the hearing by emphasizing that our forests and grasslands are increasingly susceptible to fire, which the National Interagency Fire Center expects to continue through this season. She listed some of the largest fires currently burning across the nation, including in Alaska, and detailed their effects on landscapes and local communities.
“Much of our nation’s forest landscapes are unhealthy and overstocked with excess fuels. The proliferation of disease and insect outbreaks can leave behind large swaths of hazard trees ready to ignite like matchsticks. And a changing climate means dryer and warmer weather,” Murkowski said. “Year in and year out, these factors continue to compound, creating the perfect recipe for longer, costlier, more damaging fire seasons.”
Last year was the most expensive fire season on record, with 8.8 million acres consumed by fire. This spurred a legislative response from Congress, in the form of legislation that began to expand the authorities that federal land managers need for wildfire prevention.
“We’ve given the Forest Service greater latitude to partner with states, local governments, and tribes to reduce hazardous fuels on federal lands near forest communities and out in the larger landscape. We’ve initiated a $2 billion increase in how we budget for wildfire suppression, which will take effect later this year at the start of Fiscal Year 2020,” Murkowski said. “Without delay, we expect the Forest Service and the Interior Department to utilize its full suite of resources for fire prevention and active forest management.”
The panel also discussed an initiative contained in Murkowski’s 2019 lands package – the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act – to integrate modern technology into federal firefighting crews. This includes installing GPS tracking equipment in fire trucks, increasing the use of unnamed aircraft systems by the Forest Service, and utilizing remote sensing equipment to map smoke emissions, vegetation conditions, and for the early detection of wildfires. Ms. Shawna Legarza, the Forest Service’s Director of Fire and Aviation Management, announced that the National Interagency Fire Center, will be reviewing a host of potential technologies later this month at its headquarters in Boise, Idaho.
Alaska’s State Forester, Chris Maisch, testified at the hearing on behalf of the National Association of State Foresters. In his prepared testimony, Maisch noted that “Fire knows no boundaries and state forestry agencies play a significant role in helping to reduce threats from fire as well as costs…The suite of federal programs discussed today support state and local capacity that is critically important to the nation’s wildland fire response capability.”
Another witness at the hearing, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources, Wade Crowfoot, underscored the sizable role that state agencies have in fighting wildfires and their increased efforts in mitigation.
Murkowski, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Interior-EPA Appropriations Subcommittee, has sought legislative reforms to more actively manage the nation’s forests and increased funding for wildfire suppression. Both are needed to reduce fire risks, provide adequate resources to respond to wildfires, and end the destructive practice of “fire borrowing.”An archived video and testimony from today’s hearing are available on the committee’s website. Click here to view Murkowski’s questions for witnesses.