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Wildfire survivors and experts urge Congress to act ahead of fire season

As a potentially historic fire season looms over the West, wildfire survivors and experts urged Congress on Thursday to act quickly to prevent further devastation amid worsening drought and rising rates of fire. temperatures.

Members of the United States House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands heard sometimes moving testimonies about how to better manage forests, tackle climate change, and equip communities. federal firefighters for what will likely be another record-breaking wildfire season.

The virtual hearing ended hours before a bushfire broke out in southern California, forcing some residents of Ventura County to evacuate their homes.

“We have grown painfully accustomed to the deadly and destructive fires that ravage the West year after year,” said US Representative Russ Fulcher, a Republican who represents Boise, Idaho. “However, the human cost is much higher.”

Much of the West is experiencing severe to exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, fueling concerns about another hot and dry summer.

In California alone, more than 98% of the state has experienced some level of drought this week, up from 42% at the same time last year, NBC Los Angeles reported. Meanwhile, about 75 percent of the American West is in a “mega-drought” as waterways, including the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, each provide water to millions of people. people and businesses have low speeds.

Despite warnings from experts, congressional leaders remain divided on how to deal with the crisis. While some cite climate change, others blame forest management. Yet some lawmakers are pushing federal agencies to hire more wildland firefighters, but others want states to play a proactive role in keeping communities safe.

“We have to dispel the idea that there is nothing we can do,” Fulcher said. “Too often my friends across the aisle have blamed climate change for an ever-growing multitude of sins, including wildfires, while ignoring the real culprit behind our current disaster: decades of Poor forest management, no climate change, has led to overgrown, diseased and dying forests. “

US Representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat who represents Boulder, Colorado, and surrounding areas, countered that Congress must stop the “drain” of federal resources to land agencies and increase the federal wilderness workforce. But at the heart of the problem, Neguse said, is climate change.

“For those of us who live in the West, wildfires are one of the most immediate and obvious impacts of climate change,” he said. “Forest fires are a risk almost year round today, burning larger areas at a higher intensity and this will only increase as the climate continues to warm.”

The district of Neguse was hit last year by two of the biggest wildfires in Colorado history. The Cameron Peak fire devastated more than 208,000 acres in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in Larimer and Jackson counties and Rocky Mountain National Park, forcing more than 20,000 residents to evacuate. The East Troublesome Fire claimed nearly 200,000 acres and killed two people, NBC affiliate KUSA reported.

Dave Daley, an animal science expert and rancher from Butte County in northern California, said Thursday he had experienced historic wildfires up close. His family has been raising cattle in the Plumas National Forest since his great-grandfather moved to California during the Gold Rush.

Last year, he lost most of his cow herd to the Bear Fire, which metastasized and became part of the devastating North Complex Fire that burned more than 300,000 acres in Plumas and Butte counties. .

“Until you go through this, it’s really hard for me to explain the devastation that has taken place,” he said in a trembling voice. “Not only has my herd of cows been destroyed, but the legacy of my family, my home, the whole ecosystem of the Plumas National Forest has been devastated.”

Daley also witnessed the devastation caused by the 2018 campfire, which became the deadliest and costliest blaze in California history. Hell has spread over 153,000 acres and killed 85 people, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire. Ignited by equipment from Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the blaze caused $ 16 billion in damage.

In Berry Creek, an entire town was destroyed and at least 14 people were killed in September in the bear fire. Two years before the fire reached Berry Creek, the community was chosen to receive a state grant of $ 836,000 to prune vegetation and remove fuel from potential fires, the Associated Press reported. But the forest management project was never completed due to red tape associated with vegetation thinning and pruning projects near two areas that became ground zero for the largest fire in the northern complex.

During Thursday’s hearing, Republican Doug LaMalfa, a Republican representing parts of northern California, criticized the bureaucratic quagmire that halted the project and said Congress needs to streamline the environmental review process.

“Daley’s devastating testimony should serve as a reminder to all of us as lawmakers,” he said. “There is a lot of frustration and unnecessary loss in the West.”

LaMalfa is also one of a handful of lawmakers pushing to reclassify federal forest technicians as wildland firefighters. Currently, seasonal workers employed by the US Forest Service to fight fires do not receive the same wages, benefits, or protections that are offered to state and municipal firefighters.

In September, LaMalfa introduced the Federal Law on the Recognition of Forest Firefighters, which would direct the Bureau of Personnel Management to develop a separate and distinct professional series of forest firefighters for employees whose main tasks and responsibilities are prevention and fire suppression. The bill has been introduced several times over the years and has failed. A similar bill was tabled in the Senate in 2019.

Riva Duncan, former USFS officer and current executive secretary of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an association that advocates for federal firefighters, shared a moving testimony about the toll of increasingly dangerous fires on the men and women who consecrate their lives to protect communities.

“People are at their breaking point, leaving a wake of mental health issues, suicides, high divorce rates and very concerning numbers surrounding high incidents of cancer and cardiovascular disease,” she said. . “I grew tired of losing great friends and colleagues, and I grew tired of inaction.”

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