As reported in the news this week, USDA Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell sent a letter to regional foresters and other top officials telling them to come up with significant budget cuts by Friday, August 23, 2013. The practice of the Forest Service diverting funds from other internal sources is becoming a familiar scenario – in fact, it has occurred six times since 2002. In this sense, this year’s budget cuts should come as no surprise.
Yet the news is still sobering, as is what Chief Tidwell wrote: “I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public whom we serve and on our many valuable partners, as well as agency operations, target accomplishments and performance. I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency."
The wildfire hazard mitigation community, however, is used to wildfire suppression activities receiving the bulk of federal funds. So for years our profession has been creative in our ongoing efforts to reduce wildfire threat with limited funds - through means of mitigation and prevention tools, programs, and plans.
Here’s what I have to offer today for five reasons why we can still find optimism in the future:
1) The Cohesive Strategy. Stakeholders have just issued the third and final national report of the three-phased National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. This collaborative effort is finally culminating into a plethora of well-crafted and science-based recommendations to address the current wildfire threat facing the country. These recommendations cover a number of key issues, including fuels management, prescribed fire, home and community protection, human ignitions, and initial and extended response to wildfire. Stay tuned as we will soon begin to see this information turned into action.
2) Fire Adapted Communities Coalition. In the past year, momentum to support wildfire mitigation and outreach efforts took a huge step forward through the efforts of the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition. Thanks to coordinated efforts, national organizations have been working together to create ground-breaking new resources for the public on adapting their communities to fire – Lessons Learned from the Waldo Canyon Fire is a great example. Other coalition member programs continue to grow. There are more than 950 recognized Firewise Communities/USA and 750 Ready, Set, Go! partners. These complimentary efforts provide consistent messages and help everyone’s work get easier.
3) Local Initiatives and Funding. In the past few weeks, my inbox delivered some exciting news, including a million dollar state grant awarded to Woodland Park, Colorado – one of the ten pilot communities in the new Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (an initiative by the USDA Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy). The grant will implement fire adapted community activities. Other announcements included upcoming conferences in Texas and Washington to share wildfire successes, highlight collaboration and promote state and local fire adapted community efforts among stakeholders.
4) Increased Media Awareness. I’ll admit this is purely anecdotal, but personal experience and discussions with colleagues all point to the same conclusion: the media is finally asking the right questions about wildfire. More than just how many homes were damaged, reporters want to know what the public or policymakers can do to reduce wildfire threat in their communities – what tools are out there? What is wildfire mitigation and where can I find more success stories? What other information can we provide to reduce risk in the future? This is GREAT news!
5) Renewed Interest in Regulations. Following the last several years of devastating fires, some municipalities are rethinking how their development and building codes can play a larger role in reducing wildfire impacts by requiring fire-resistant materials, landscaping, and other site design considerations. Not only that, but in some cases such as the recent Black Forest Fire that saw a devastating loss of nearly 500 homes, some members of the public are asking for more stringent regulations! Combined with other mitigation actions, regulations can go a long way in preparing homes and communities for wildfire hazard and reducing future losses.
The recent news about USDA Forest Service budget cuts made national headlines, and that’s a good thing. It shows that the issue of wildfire and what we are (or aren’t) doing about it is of national concern. This is no longer a sideline issue that a handful of states have to deal with; rather it has become a must-address situation. We are all doing important work, and we know that even with setbacks the results of our mitigation efforts will bear fruit. It’s important to stay positive and creative, and continue getting the word out about why our work is effective and must remain a priority.