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Romney: We must confront the reality that wildfires are an increasing problem

Highlights Utah’s Fire Sense campaign, recent findings of wildfire commission, and the need to reform outdated wildfire policies to meet current conditions

WASHINGTON—At a Budget Committee hearing today on the economic cost of wildfires, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) highlighted the reality that wildfires are becoming increasingly catastrophic in Utah and across the West and argued the need to adapt our wildfire policies to meet the current conditions, instead of continuing to respond to fires as we have in the past.

Romney cited the recent findings of the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission—established by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—which outlines a strategy to meet aerial firefighting equipment needs through 2030. He also touted the effectiveness of the State of Utah’s Fire Sense campaign and advocated for the adoption of a similar program nationwide.

His exchange with one of the witnesses can be found below. Full video of the exchange can be found here.

Chairman Whitehouse: Senator Romney has arrived from Utah, which is designated by hazards.utah.gov as one of the most wildfire prone states in the U.S. I’m delighted that he is here—Senator Romney.

Senator Romney: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I realize Rhode Island is not quite at the same risk as Utah, and I appreciate your bringing this attention to our entire conference and Senate. A couple of things. My state is about 70% owned by the federal government. And so we care particularly about what’s happening in the national forests and wildfire is a major issue in our state. Each of you have mentioned global warming and humans’ participation in creating global warming. I would posit that it’s not going to go away.

Global warming will continue. Emissions continue to rise. I’ve seen no studies whatsoever that suggest there’s any way the world is going to reduce the amount of emissions that are emitted over the coming decade or two. Nor is there going to be a reduction in the warming of the planet or the climate change of the planet, unfortunately. So, we’re going to have to deal with the reality that wildfires are going to become an increasing problem. And presumably in the American West, where the drought conditions have been severe over the last couple of decades and may continue. So that means we have to think about, okay, how are we going to deal with this? And we can’t just keep on responding to fires as we have in the past because of our conditions. Our conditions have changed.

First of all, in terms of reducing the number of fires started, our state actually has begun a program of contacting people with alerts about fire danger, and that has had an impact on reducing the number of human-caused wildfires. So, I would suggest that as at least one thing we [should] consider even at the federal level or at least encouraging states to consider.

But number two, the fuel load, as you described is, in my opinion, perhaps of greatest concern. And it has the greatest potential for remediation. As I look back in the 1990s, the average number of acres burned was about four, maybe four and a half million acres per year. Now the number is up at about seven million acres per year or more. So almost a 50% increase going from the 90s to the 2000s—the two decades of the 2000s. And so when you consider that change, even though the number of fires started was the same, the number of acres burned has almost gone up 50% or almost doubled. And so the challenge is how do we reduce the fuel load?

And in my view, that relates to the management of the forest—controlled burns, as well as removing deadwood out of the forest when it does die so it doesn’t just sit there and become a cause of potential conflagration. Mr. Loris, is that correct? Do you have a perspective that fuel load is one of the key things we can move on to make a change in the devastating nature of these fires?

Nicolas Loris: Yeah, absolutely. And again, I think fixing some of the regulatory processes to allow these, you know, mechanical thinning to allow prescribed burns to happen more efficiently is a viable and necessary option. I also think the expansion of collaborative partnerships that we’ve seen with the states in the Forest Service through the Good Neighbor Authority, as well as the Root and STEM Act that has bipartisan support with Senator Feinstein and Senator Daines, as an opportunity for nonprofits and the private sector to work together to establish some positive relationships that can be a win-win in terms of finding and harnessing the economic value of some of this small timber, whether it’s for cross laminated timber or if it’s for woodchips, whatever the case may be, but also reducing those wildfire risks.

Romney: Yeah, I would note two areas I think we have to look at. One is for controlled burns. We in our state have a hard time doing them at the right time because we have to do environmental reviews and get federal approval to do the controlled burn. And by the time we get those approvals, the wet season or a wet period has gone, and we can’t do the controlled burn. So one, we need to speed up the process for giving approvals on controlled burns. Number two, we’ve got to put in place long-term contracts for logging deadwood as opposed to just annual contracts. No one’s going to build a logging facility for a one-year return. There’s also the concern about firefighting and the capacity that we have to fight these fires. The infrastructure bill that we put in place a year ago put in place a commission which is looking at how we fight fires and how we reduce the risk of fires. They’ve now met once, they’ve got about 50 people, and they divide up into task forces. One recommendation that’s already clear is we don’t have enough fixed wing aircraft to be able to respond immediately to fires that could become conflagration. So that’s another area I think we need to focus on. And finally, the recovery after a fire. It takes too long to remediate after a fire. I don’t know whether any of you have any experience in that regard, but the time it takes the federal government to allow us to remediate a forest that’s been burned is too long. It results, therefore, in more flooding occurring, more damage to the watershed as a result of the flooding. Do we need to speed that up? Have you had any experience, any of you, in that in that regard?

Loris: No experience. But I did note in my written testimony, you know, some things that we can do to address these seed shortages and having more practitioners is to have more immigration, to expand H-2B visas. You know, this is something that can help with the collection of seeds, as well as to have more ecologists, more firefighters come in so that necessary step in the year or two after the fire I think is critical in terms of restoring these areas as effectively as possible.

Romney: Thank you, Mr. Loris. Keeping on doing the things as we’ve been doing them is not the right way to go.