Fixing the wildfire funding problem starts with prevention


Heart surgeons don’t want to perform surgery if we don’t have to. Whenever possible, the smart approach is to invest first in keeping a heart healthy enough to avoid the risk and cost of surgery. Surgeons are brought in when needed to help avert disaster, but an ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure.

Since America’s forests are the heart and lungs of our nation, it is no surprise the same principle applies there. Forests clean our drinking water and trees filter the air we all need, so the work of keeping them healthy shouldn’t suffer because we must also fight wildfire disasters.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) are often forced to choose between the two.

While we use emergency funds for damages and recovery from earthquakes, floods and other disasters, we pay to fight wildfire disasters directly from the budgets of these federal agencies.

In bad fire years like this one, when the budgeted amount isn’t enough, the Forest Service and DOI must take money away from the very programs that are designed to reduce wildfire risk. This only exacerbates the problem and increases the likelihood of future fires.

You wouldn’t perform bypass surgery on a patient but then neglect to prescribe the heart medication necessary to maintain heart health, but that is exactly what we’re doing by fighting catastrophic wildfires while starving the programs needed to reduce a reoccurrence.

It is time to fix how we fund wildfire disaster relief.

In 2016, spending on wildfire management was more than three timeswhat it was in the 1990s, with the average annual acreage burned by wildfires more than doubling in that time.

In my home state of Tennessee that year, for example, a massive wildfire started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Driven by strong winds, it reached the city of Gatlinburg and tragically cost 14 people their lives. More than 130 others were injured, and the fire destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and businesses.

A few months ago, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke presented the agency’s official report on the fire. The report recommended the National Park Service should be more proactive about removing “dead and dying timber” in the park, he said.

It is an understandable and reasonable approach. When you get rid of the material that fuels a fire, the fire goes out. In fact, federal agencies have had programs to do this and other forest management work to reduce wildfire disasters for many years.

But, sadly, these programs are the work that the Forest Service and DOI are often forced to cut when the agencies’ funds instead must go toward fighting wildfires. Our public lands are deprived of vital investments in conservation, land management, recreation and watershed protection and critically, hazardous fuel reduction to thin out dense tree stands and reduce flammable underbrush.

Nobody would deny the need to spend resources protecting people and property when a fire is raging and the need is urgent. But why should that come at the expense of the very work that could reduce risks of future fire disasters?

Congress can fix this problem, and there has been strong, bipartisan support for doing so for years. Conservation organizations, sportsmen’s groups, firefighters, timber interests, recreation businesses and more have all joined members of Congress from both parties to advocate for a swift but comprehensive solution.

With the problem only getting worse, there is no reason for delay. Congress can act now by passing a comprehensive wildfire funding fix.

The solution should address the continued erosion of agency budgets due to increasing wildfire suppression costs, access disaster funding for extraordinarily costly fires, and significantly reduce the need to transfer funds from other programs. It would provide a fairer, more efficient, and more effective way to address federal fire suppression costs.

As heart surgeons know well, when a big problem needs a quick solution, you don’t wait to act. The stakes are too high.

A comprehensive wildfire funding solution is necessary, urgent, and has broad support. Congress should not miss the opportunity to enact it quickly in a government funding package to help reduce risks of future disasters. The health of our public lands and the safety of our communities are at risk.

William Frist M.D. is a heart transplant surgeon, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and serves on the Global Board of Directors of The Nature Conservancy.