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Northwest senators call for more measures to reduce wildfire risk

As Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah] speaks, an aide holds up a photo of the Salt Lake City skyline taken during during a smoke event last year.
U.S. Senate video screenshot
As Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah] speaks, an aide holds up a photo of a smoky Salt Lake City skyline taken during during a smoke event last year.

Unhealthy air in the nation’s capital has ignited new calls for changes to federal practices in national forests.

During a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell [D-Washington] noted smoke from Canadian wildfires is not new, though maybe new to the eastern U.S. She recalled that the Northwest inhaled smoke from British Columbia just last month.

While wildfires are top of mind, she says Congress should do its part to help the agencies that fight those fires from the air.

“On the ground, we have something that is very effective in having people work collectively on identifying fires and responding,” Cantwell said. “I believe we need better cooperation between the Forest Service and the state to bring down any barriers that are preventing us from having a quick aviation response.”

That's something the state of Washington is also emphasizing. Governor Jay Inslee this year signed a law that allows the state to reimburse local agencies that call in air support for their initial attack on wildfires, rather than waiting for the state to approve water and retardant air strikes.

“We also need to implement the technology communication tools that we asked the Forest Service about last hearing that gives us communication directly to where the fire is and what we’re doing in response,” she said.

Cantwell is also calling for closer collaboration with Canadian fire agencies. Jeffrey Rupert, the director of the Office of Wildland Fire in the Department of the Interior, estimated more than 300 American firefighters are working north of the border with their Canadian colleagues today.

Sen. Maria Cantwell [D-Washington] speaks while an aide holds a placard that shows U.S. wildfire forecasts for the next four months. The regions in red are at higher risk of fire danger.
U.S. Senate video screenshot
Sen. Maria Cantwell [D-Washington] speaks while an aide while a placard shows U.S. wildfire forecasts for the next four months. The regions in red are at higher risk of fire danger.

With a map of projected summer wildfire danger areas behind her, Cantwell said, “Unfortunately for us, the latest map of the forecast for this summer, I think the last time we showed this at our last hearing, Mr. Chairman, there was a little bit of Washington in the red. But now my whole state is in the forecast for this summer being in the epicenter of this."

Several senators grilled Forest Service and federal fire officials, wanting to know why federal agencies have not been more aggressive in thinning forests and doing more low-intensity burning to reduce fuel loads. Sen. Mike Lee [R-Utah] asked one of the panelists at the hearing, Wyoming’s interim state forester, Kelly Norris, why she thinks federal lands are often more susceptible to big fires than state and private forestlands.

“I believe that has a lot to do with the state’s and private landowners’ flexibility in being able to get things done on the ground quickly. It appears sometimes our federal partners, through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process, through certain processes, it takes them much longer to get the work done on the ground,” she said.

Some senators want Congress to loosen environmental restrictions to make it easier for the Forest Service and other federal agencies to cover more ground in their forest thinning projects. Others want to make it more difficult for federal forest projects to be challenged, either administratively or in court.

“We’ve got to stop wasting limited agency resources to needlessly redo and re-litigate projects that have already undergone extensive environmental and public processes,” said Sen. Jim Risch [R-Idaho].

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.