“Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are” — Carlos Fernandez

The Lodgepole fire north of Twin lakes finds plenty of fuel with the areas grass, sagebrush and lodgepole pines. Photo: Lake County Office of Emergency Management.

Here’s a guest column from Carlos Fernandez that’s running in The Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Devastating wildfires are burning throughout southern California adding to what has been one of the worst wildfire seasons to date. Fighting these fires comes with a hefty price tag — more than $2.4 billion so far — causing the federal government to dip into money that could instead go toward making forests healthier and less fire prone.

Fire fighting is draining the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. This year more than 50 percent of the Forest Service budget is going to fire suppression, and they are needing to redirect money from programs that restore forests and remove brush that help to reduce the risk of fire in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break.

Now is the time for our federal legislators to fix this problem. As lawmakers consider a budget bill and additional disaster relief aid in response to the devastating hurricanes this past year, they should also provide further funding for fire suppression and permanently change the way the U.S. pays to fight wildfires. Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are and make disaster funding accessible for federal firefighting efforts.

Colorado is no stranger to wildfires. Although we were spared catastrophic wildfires this season, the High Park fire west of Fort Collins was the second largest fire in recorded Colorado history. It destroyed 259 homes, cost $38 million to suppress, resulted in $113 in insurance losses and damaged our water supply filling it with ash and debris.

In Colorado and across the West, we need to invest in making our forests healthier to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires and get ahead of the problem.

To do this, The Nature Conservancy works with government agencies, businesses, homeowners, municipalities and other non-governmental organizations on forest restoration projects that mimic the natural role of fire to create a healthy ecosystem and mitigate the potential for negative impacts from large scale wildfires. Just this past year we completed a prescribed burn at the Ben Delatour Boy Scout ranch to protect the Elkhorn Creek Watershed, a tributary to the Poudre River.

We know that wildfire fighting costs are going to continue to rise. And under the government’s current funding structure, the U.S. can’t keep up. We need to not only fight megafires, but also keep our forests healthy — and protect our nation’s land, property and people.

To ask your member of Congress to support fire funding legislation, visit http://bit.ly/wildfirefix.

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