Congress Lets Western States Burn, Fails to Find Funding to Combat Wildfires

Congress is heading home for summer vacation, failing to act on emergency funding to combat the wildfires that are raging in the West.

President Obama had requested $615 million in emergency funding to help the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department pay for firefighting efforts, and the Democratic-controlled Senate proposed a $2.7 billion spending bill to deal with both the wildfires and the influx of unaccompanied minors along the Southwest border. But Senate Republicans used a procedural objection to block its consideration.The House did not introduce a bill to combat wildfires.

Although Congress returns next month, the fire season in some states will have passed its peak. 

Ironically, without emergency funding from Congress, the Forest Service and Interior Department will need to transfer money from elsewhere in their budgets, including funds earmarked to remove flammable vegetation from forests, projects that help prevent such fires from raging in the first place.

The two federal agencies have budgeted over $1 billion for firefighting this year — five times more than 20 years ago — but that may not be enough.

Wildfires are currently raging through the Pacific Northwest and California, in regions that have been affected by unseasonably warm temperatures and drought. The long-range forecast in the region  calls for above-average temperatures through October, which can translate into fuels that are much drier than usual. 

Fires continue to rage in Oregon, and communities in the southwestern part of the state are being asked to evacuate their homes, as fire spreads along the border with California. Some 5,300 acres in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument have been scorched and the town of Ashland, just to its east, is threatened by the fire. Meanwhile, lightning has sparked two new large wildfires in the state.

About 780 square miles  of land is currently burning in Oregon, and a continued heat wave, along with forecasted lightning storms, are expected to bring more fires to the region.

Fires in central Washington, which have raged since early July, are threatening the state’s famous orchards at the time apple harvest begins.

In California, a wildfire in Yosemite National Park is being fought back, but still threatens a rare grove of giant sequoias. The fire is 58% percent contained as of Friday. Some firefighters at the scene have been redeployed to another fire 100 miles away in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Over the past few weeks, dozens of wildfires have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres and forced thousands of residents from their homes in the three states. Only a few weeks into the three-month fire season in Washington and Oregon, the total area of scorched ground is already higher than in any full year over at least a decade.

More than 3,500 people — including National Guard troops and firefighters from across the nation -- have been battling the fires.

Satellite imagery drives home the message of the fires’ severity. Vast plumes of smoke are moving south and east across the nation, spewing ash particulates as far away as New England and the Gulf of Mexico.

After a mild, damp spring, much of the Pacific Northwest has been experiencing a heat wave this summer, with temperatures reaching past 100 degrees.  But it was the lightning and high winds associated with thunderstorms that have breathed the fires to life, according to fire officials.

Fires in high-elevation timberlines, where there are few homes and people, are being allowed to burn as firefighters concentrate on the ones that are more threatening to civilization.

Worrisome during this fire season is California, which is very susceptible to wildfires. The entire state has been under drought conditions for months, with most areas under “exceptional” or “extreme” drought conditions. Powerful Santa Ana winds have helped make conditions ideal for wildfires since January. It’s the first time in 15 years that all of California has been under drought conditions.

So far, California's firefighting agency, Cal Fire, has responded to more than 3,700 wildfires, which is a huge increase in the average number of fires at this point in the year. More than 52,000 acres have burned in the state this year. 


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