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Colorado: Udall pushes for additional wildfire funding

Recovery in an area burned by the Waldo Canyon Fire, near Colorado Springs, Photo courtesy PSICC.

Recovery in an area burned by the Waldo Canyon Fire, near Colorado Springs, Photo courtesy PSICC.

Emergency funds sought to help preparedness

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With some fire experts expecting another bad fire season next summer, a pair of Democratic senators from the Rocky Mountain region are trying to boost funding for the Forest Service.

An amendment to the Supplemental Appropriation for Disaster Assistance offered by Senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) would allocate an additional $653 million for firefighting and fire prevention.

The funds would be used to pre-position ground crews, hot shots, and air support in places where wildfire risk is very high. The funds also would be available for the acquisition of additional large air tankers and the removal of hazardous fuels in the wildland-urban interface, the fire-prone areas between cities and the backcountry.

“Colorado and the West experienced one of the most severe fire seasons on record this year. Although I continue to hope for heavy snow this winter and an end to the drought that has engulfed Colorado and the West, 2013 is estimated to be even more severe than this year,” Udall said. “We need to be prepared … Wildfire can devastate communities, both during the fires and long after with damaged watersheds and increased flooding risks. This is an emergency situation, and western states need the resources to fight back.”

“Fire seasons will continue to get worse, and we must protect lives, our homes and our communities,” Tester said. “More than one million acres burned across Montana this summer and changing conditions will only lead to more devastation in the years to come. This is the first in a series of necessary and responsible steps to make sure we have the resources needed to protect life and property, and to deal with our changing environment.”

The United States faced the third worst wildfire season in the nation’s history, with more than 9.2 million acres burned, including record-setting blazes in Colorado and other parts of the West. The federal government, however, will enter the 2013 fire season with only eight large air tankers compared to 44 in 2000.

The federal fire-management budget also has failed to keep pace with the cost of actually fighting wildfires, forcing the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies to dip into accounts set aside for other purposes, such as watershed restoration and rangeland management.

Udall and Tester’s proposed amendment to the Supplemental Appropriation for Disaster Assistance restores $653 million to the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management Account, which funds wildland fire preparedness, suppression, hazardous fuels reduction, fire research and development, and state fire assistance. The amendment would increase the budget request for the Wildland Fire Management fund to the projected median cost of the fire season, $1.584 billion.

Udall has been a strong supporter of ensuring that the federal government is well-positioned to fight wildfires, including expediting the U.S. Forest Service’s acquisition of seven next-generation air tankers this past summer.

Udall also has pressed the federal government to study the recent record-setting fires that burned along the Front Range in an effort to improve how federal, state and local agencies respond to future blazes. Udall recently requested that the U.S. Forest Service study the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires to understand the social, economic, organizational and ecological impacts of both fires and to understand how to mitigate the impact of future fires.

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