Fire suppression costs can be as little as 3% of total impact cost of forest fire, The Nature Conservancy official tells US Senate committee, says fires have increased 57% in past decade, calls for increase in funding for hazardous fuels reduction

ARLINGTON, Virginia , November 7, 2013 (press release) – Today the U.S. Senate Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Forestry and Natural Resources heard testimony from several national experts on ways to improve federal wildland fire management. One of those experts was The Nature Conservancy’s Chris Topik, director of the organization’s national Restoring America’s Forests program. Prior to The Nature Conservancy, Topik worked for the Forest Service and staffed 15 years with the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee on federal land management issues.

Topik thanked the Senate Subcommittee for their attention to this important and immediate matter of public safety and well-being. The nation has experienced a 57% increase in fires this past decade, with the National Interagency Fire Center predicting extreme fire potential for much of the West this summer. The hearing comes on the heels of a tragic wildfire season.

His testimony began by noting that societal, environmental and fiscal costs of fire continue their precipitous climb:

“The real economic and social impacts of uncharacteristic wildfires are not fully known, but we do know that the cost of fire suppression alone is at least $4.7 billion ($2.5 billion for federal agencies, $1.2 billion for State agencies and about $1 billion for local governments). We also know that the cost of fire suppression is only a small part of the direct cost of fires. Recent estimates of 6 fires suggested that fire suppression expenditures can be as little as 3% or 5% of the total direct impact cost of the fire.”

Topik also described the relationship of climate change to extreme future fire behavior:

“The Forest Service itself expects severe fires to double by 2050. 2012 was the third biggest fire year since 1960, with 9.3 million acres burned— the Forest Service is estimating 20 million acres to burn annually by 2050. We are already seeing these impacts: the Four Corners region has documented temperature increases of 1.5-2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 60 years.”

In addition to addressing the demonstrated value of proactive fire work, Topik also commented on the success of collaborative public-private forest management efforts, such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration program; the need to adequately fund fire suppression efforts ahead of time to avoid running out of firefighting money, which occurred last year; empowering communities to take steps to protect themselves against megafires; and the desperate need to increase the pace of forest restoration to avoid harms to people, water, and wildlife.

Topik’s top nine forest and fire recommendations to the Senate Subcommittee were:

I. Budgetary
1. Increase federal funding for hazardous fuels reduction, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration and associated federal land management operations and science;
2. Create and fund a new federal fire suppression funding mechanism to free up resources for risk reduction above;
3. Permanently authorize stewardship contracting authority;
4. Increase capacity of states and communities to become fire adapted;
5. Increase research on economic, social and ecological impacts of forest investment.

II. Management Decisions

6. NEPA implementation improvements to increase scale and innovation on projects and plans;
7. Increase shared commitment and support for forest restoration by states and local governments;
8. Enhance participation of additional sectors of society, such as water and power utilities, recreation and tourism, public health, and industrial users of clean water;
9. Increase use of safe and effective wildland fire.

For his full testimony please contact Jon Schwedler.

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