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Republican News

Calls For Increased Forest Management to Help Alaska’s Wildfire Problem

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today sought input from state and local stakeholders on developing a path forward to restoring responsible forest management practices needed to get control of our nation’s growing wildfire problem.

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“Healthy, resilient forests are fire-resistant forests. And yet, despite knowing the value of fuel-reduction treatments and creating fuel-breaks in mitigating wildfire risks, increasing firefighter safety, and restoring the health of our forests – active management is still often met with a series of discouraging and near insurmountable obstacles,” Murkowski said.

As chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski questioned witnesses from Alaska at today’s hearing on possible ways to improve current federal wildland fire management practices employed in Alaska and nationwide.

Murkowski pointed out at Tuesday’s oversight hearing that the majority of the land affected by wildfires in the United States is in Alaska.

“This year was no exception,” she said. “We had more than 5 million acres burned in my home state. That’s equal to an area the size of Connecticut. Only the 2004 fire season, where nearly 6.6 million acres burned, was worse for us.”

John Maisch testifying at Tuesday’s hearing on wildland fire management

Those testifying before the committee Tuesday included Alaska State Forester John “Chris” Maisch, as well as Anchorage resident Rick Zerkel, president of Lynden Air Cargo.

In his testimony, Maisch pointed to the lack coordination between federal and state agencies as an obstacle to insuring efficient and effective use of suppression resources when it comes to deploying aviation assets during wildfires. He also highlighted the effectiveness of large landscape fuel breaks, like the one done in partnership with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge that protected communities on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula during the Funny River fire in 2014. 

Click here to view video of Lynden Air’s Rick Zerkel testifying

Lynden Air Cargo’s Zerkel said a more even playing field with respect to the federal standards for the use of firefighting aircraft was needed to improve wildfire response and reduce costs. Currently, fire-suppression aircraft owned by the U.S. Forest Service do not have to adhere to the same rigorous Federal Aviation Administration safety and equipment standards as civilian aircraft. Zerkel said using commercial firefighting aircraft would be a safer and more cost-effective alternative.

Murkowski called for greater collaboration between federal and state agencies to end the damaging practice of fire-borrowing and promote fire suppression efforts in Alaska and the Lower 48.

“We must work with our state agencies, local communities, and the public to increase community preparedness and make our forests healthy again,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski reiterated her commitment to working with ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to develop a strategy for addressing wildfire management.

As chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, Murkowski authored an interior appropriations bill that would provide the U.S. Forest Service with 100 percent of the 10-year average for fire suppression costs and provide a limited emergency reserve or contingency fund for firefighting in above-average years. But, she said, the wildfire problem is not just a budgeting problem – it’s also a management problem. 

“We have failed to appropriately manage our fire-dependent forests and fire-prone landscapes, and that has predisposed our forests to mega-fires,” Murkowski said. “Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. We cannot simply match the increasing wildfire threat with greater and greater suppression force, and call it a day. Wildfire suppression and its escalating costs are economically, ecologically, and socially unsustainable. And the 2015 fire season underscores that point.”

Murkowski said any strategy to address wildfire management should include efforts to responsibly fund suppression, end the unsustainable practice of fire borrowing, improve operational efficiencies to ensure the availability and effectiveness of the aviation fleet and firefighter safety, increased community preparedness through “firewise” activities and the implementation of community protection plans, and investment in a full array of fuel treatments, including prescribed fires and mechanical thinning.   

“What we must recognize is that many of the same factors that are increasing the size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires are also driving up wildfire suppression costs, both in actual dollars and as a portion of the Forest Service’s total budget.”