Peters: A smarter way to fight wildfires
By Scott Peters
Last year, 6,300 wildfires burned over 300,000 acres across California. In May 2014, more than a dozen wildfires broke out in San Diego County alone, burning 26,000 acres, taking one life, and costing home and business owners $29.8 million. Five years into the worst drought in California’s history, we know the devastation that comes from wildfire seasons paired with severe drought conditions. Since coming to Congress, I have made it a priority to get our communities the resources they need to protect lives and property from the threat of wildfires.
This past year I helped pass a plan that fully funds the 10-year average of what we spend putting out wildfires across the country. It also makes an additional $600 million available for communities to better prepare for, prevent and recover from wildfires. This is a critical step forward, but doesn’t yet fix the systemic problem of Washington not budgeting and planning properly for wildfires — the natural disasters of the West.
Every year the federal government allocates funds for both wildfire prevention and response. Under the current system, when we run out of funds to fight the wildfires that are already burning we dip into the money set aside for prevention. This has happened seven of the last 14 years.
Since coming to Congress, I have been building support to pass the “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act,” which is a fiscally responsible proposal to fixing this dangerous, broken approach. It reclassifies wildfires to treat them the same as other natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. This would open the existing disaster contingency fund to cover part of the cost of wildfire response.
In 2014, I led the charge to force a vote on this bill. While that effort came up short, this broadly bipartisan proposal now has 145 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and support from organizations across the political spectrum. In October, I hosted Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in San Diego County to enlist her support as well. We toured the areas burned by the May 2014 fires, examined communities that are at high risk from longer and more severe fire seasons, and agreed that we must fix the broken federal funding approach.
Just as the drought and changing climate are causing our wildfire seasons to become more severe, we are stealing resources away from the programs designed to prevent fires. By September of last year, we had already transferred $700 million from prevention to firefighting efforts. This means fewer resources for institutions like CalFire to clear forests and conduct prescribed burns that protect wildfire-prone communities. It’s impossible to know how many fires could have been prevented or their effects lessened by better-funded prevention efforts.
For all of us who have seen first-hand the destruction that wildfires cause, there is no question that they are natural disasters. Our local authorities are better prepared to fight wildfires now than they ever have been, and they should not have to choose between disaster relief and other necessary programs. I will continue pushing to fix this broken federal funding system to get our region the resources it needs to protect itself from wildfires.
Peters, a Democrat, represents the 52nd District of California in the House of Representatives. The district covers much of central San Diego County, including Poway, Rancho Bernardo, 4S Ranch, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Sabre Springs and Rancho Penasquitos.