Congress Fiddles While the Western States Burn

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In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, one of the most touching responses in my neighborhood, not far Ground Zero, was the overwhelming support of police and fire departments from around the country. Across the street from my apartment, at the 6th Precinct headquarters from which two officers had rushed to the scene and died, every day a different police contingent from a different town in America guarded our street. And a couple of blocks away, at the Squad 18 firehouse, which lost seven men on September 11, fellow firefighters from all over came to stand vigil and pay their respects. Solidarity.

A flag sits at the base of a flag pole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling an Arizona wildfire on June 30th is shown Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Yarnell, Ariz. As the fire grew out of control, the firefighters quickly worked to clear the area of scrub and brush hoping to endure the intense heat in their emergency shelters. (AP Photo/Matt York)

A flag sits at the base of a flag pole at the site where 19 firefighters died battling an Arizona wildfire on June 30th is shown Tuesday, July 23, 2013 in Yarnell, Ariz. As the fire grew out of control, the firefighters quickly worked to clear the area of scrub and brush hoping to endure the intense heat in their emergency shelters. (AP Photo/Matt York)

All this came back to me when the memorial was held a couple of weeks ago for the 19 firemen who died battling the Yarnell Hill wildfire in Arizona. The tragedy was the worst to befall firefighters since the World Trade Center came down, and the most deadly in eighty years for the men and women who dedicate themselves to taming blazes in the wilderness.

Thousands jammed into an arena in Prescott Valley, Ariz., with the overflow of the crowd in an adjoining parking lot, standing, listening and mourning under the desert sun. There were firefighters there from Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma, but also from Sacramento, Los Angeles – and New York.

Nine days before, the crew members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots had been fatally overtaken by flames and smoke. When the winds picked up and the fire changed direction, surging four miles in twenty minutes, they were trapped, surrounded in a box canyon, trying to save themselves under emergency fire shelters that melted from the heat.

Anyone who has ever been in the middle of a serious fire knows how terrifying they are and unpredictable, even for those like the hotshots, with their courage, skills and conditioning. Much of what gets them through is their camaraderie and the knowledge that what they do saves lives and property. The least we can do is stand in solidarity behind them, but on both a micro and macro level, our stalwart U.S. Congress, aided and abetted by government bureaucracy, is cutting Western firefighters’ lifeline much as it did when members of the House initially balked at aid for sick and dying 9/11 first responders. This, despite their publicly professed pride in the men and women who rush into danger when the rest of us rush out to safety.

“In May, Obama administration officials warned that sequester cuts would inhibit the nation’s ability to effectively fight wildfires in the West,” Derek Pugh wrote in the progressive Campaign for America’s Future blog on July 1. “… Budget cuts are putting the lives of our firefighters and those who live in and near forests at an unacceptably high risk.

“… The automatic spending cuts have forced the U.S. Forest Service to shed 500 firefighters, between 50 and 70 fire trucks and two aircrafts in this year’s budget. The sequester will leave agencies $115 million short of normal firefighting capacity, meaning that 200,000 fewer acres will be treated to prevent fires.”

Fighting actual fires has meant shifting money from fire prevention, which in a Catch-22-like situation may actually create more and worse fires in the future. And, according to the Climate Desk at Mother Jones magazine, “…The agency’s next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24 percent.

“It’s all part of what fire ecologists, environmentalists, and firefighters interviewed by Climate Desk describe as an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.”

This worry was echoed by four Western senators in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget and other cabinet departments – written, coincidentally, on the very day the fatal Yarnell Hill fire began: “This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs.” And a May report from Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute “found that the bulk of the costs from megafires are borne not by the federal government but by local governments – and the federal budgeting process ignores those bills when weighing whether prevention saves money.”

As for the macro, the simple fact that we refuse to take legislative action to curb climate change is part of the reason fires will continue to worsen. “Big wildfires… thrive in dry air, low humidity and high winds,” James West reports in Mother Jones. “Climate change is going to make those conditions more frequent over the next century. We know because it’s already happening: A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires have occurred more often in the western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour.”

“Thomas Tidwell, the head of the United States Forest Service, told a Senate committee on energy and natural resources recently that the fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago. Fires now, he said, burn the same amount of land faster.”

It’s part of that “new normal” you keep hearing about – drought, heat, earlier growing seasons, new insect infestations, global air and water currents, like the Gulf jet stream, shifting. And fewer trees mean less carbon dioxide being absorbed by them, more CO2 given off when the remaining ones burn, which adds to the warming and more fires… you get the picture.

Many firefighters have commented that they are facing more extreme fire behavior than they have witnessed in their lifetimes.
“The West is burning,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently told reporters. “We have climate change. You can’t deny it.” And if you don’t believe him, listen to Dr. Michael Medler, a scientist at Western Washington University who used to be a wildland firefighter himself. “On the firelines, it is clear that global warming is changing fire behavior, creating longer fire seasons, and causing more frequent, large-scale, high severity wildfires,” he told a House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Many firefighters have commented that they are facing more extreme fire behavior than they have witnessed in their lifetimes.”

The good news is that Dr. Medler says some of his colleagues speculate there’s a ten-year “window of opportunity to… have some control over fire behavior with desirable effects…”

The bad news is he said that nearly six years ago. The Granite Mountain Hotshots have just finished burying their dead.

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  • ccaffrey

    I suggest that all those who were high-fiving themselves about the sequester cuts be required to personally staff food and water “aid stations” for firefighters during the next conflagration. Nothing quite like seeing firsthand the results of your folly.

  • Dangerous Beauty

    “Stalwart Congress”?– meaning loyal, reliable and hardworking? Well, it wouldn’t be Monday in America without a big dose of irony. But, “stalwart”? Really? How about recalcitrant and oligarchal? Having ringside seats over-seeing the continuing transfer and re-allocation of American wealth, assets and services into the hands of privateers is a bitter enough experience for most Americans. Must we also suffer the press complementjng them as they do so?

  • Anonymous

    With due respect, Mr. Moyers, there weren’t enough Granite Mountain Hotshots left to bury their dead. There was only one, the entire Hotshot crew was wiped out otherwise. The crew was unique in all America. It was the only one that was based on a single community’s FD. At this time, there are no plans to replace the Hotshot crew by the FD. The outfit lost about 20% of it’s total on duty strength in these 19 men and they just can’t, certainly not now. Of the 19 one was 43 another 30 the rest were all in their 20’s as far as I can tell. They left 8 widows, 1 unmarried partner and 15 Children. 3 of the children where unborn at the time of death, including one carried by the unmarried partner. As far as I can tell no child is old enough to be in 3rd grade at time of death, most are preschool aged. The full depth of grief is unknowable and one wonders how supportable?

  • Bob Muenchausen

    if global warming toasts the Eastern Seaboard’s forests, and Southern
    Pine forests and the canopy over most of the East bursts into flame from
    lightning, perhaps they will finally share a reality with the West.

  • Scott

    All I can say is that with the “cuts” all that needs to be done is to LET the fires burn!! Once enough of the forests are burned out and clear of houses, then the “next” generation can decide how to work with the new growth forest!

  • Anonymous

    So Congress can find almost a half billion dollars to fund the building of tanks the Pentagon told them they do not need or want, but they can’t find enough money to fight fires in the West. I guess it’s too bad that firefighters don’t have the same amount of money with which to buy congressmen as General Dynamics does.

  • Sortedsortof

    Once again, the Obama administration is using the “sequester” to cut funds that people will notice instead of the waste that occurs daily. He can then blame Republicans for the problems that arise and score some political points.

    Obama could use his leadership to direct funds to things that are needed. Yet we continue to fund wars in Afghanistan and Syria and cannot protect our people at home. President Obama’s “leadership” has yet to make an appearance.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that President Obama’s “leadership” has yet to make an appearance, but I think responsibility for the “sequester” and related problems is shared. It is the result of brinksmanship by the two major political parties (I’m lumping the GOP and Tea Party into one for the purposes of this discussion) and a mexican standoff between the House, the Senate, and the Executive. Only Congress can direct funds anyplace since they have the power of the purse. The President can suggest and advocate courses of action, but the only power he has over funding is his veto power (and at least theoretically Congress can override his veto). What this means is that all three parties (the House, the Senate, and the President) are complicit in the sequester and are working hard to spin it for political gain.

    As usual, the American public and the common good are collateral damage in the Washington’s political warfare.

  • Sortedsortof

    I agree. It’s all just another political war. How sad, that people don’t count.

  • Sortedsortof

    Remember……. Political war, we don’t count.

  • S.A. McClellan

    Twitter’s showing the text as too long to post; tho there’s characters yet available. I’ve notice that, when attempting to tweet other “controversial” content, lately.

  • S.A. McClellan

    And Obama had the nerve to go pay respects to the fallen firefighters; after allowing these atrocities. And, why was it, again, that the huge planes that can put out fires…some that were parked at the Military Academy, near Colorado Springs, remained grounded, while the forests and homes burned…& still…?

  • Anonymous

    Denial can be such an ugly trend. People bought into the Tea Bag mantra of less government and paying lower or the same taxes with less government control on exhaust emissions, pollution control, inspecting and fining the worse EPA reg violators can only mean one thing – sooner or later a horrific wake up call as to just how horrid things have become out west that a fire storm of biblical proportions will force the blind and deaf into accepting the ugly reality that things will get much worse before they improve.

  • SDCountyFF_PM

    @Scott: letting the forests burn is not a viable option (though I
    agree some change in building permits/codes is in order). The chaparral
    and forests can’t handle too many fires:

  • Anonymous

    But we have enough money for another war!

  • Anonymous

    But they don’t make money on saving forests.

  • Annie Stratton

    When I was about 10, in the heyday of Smokey the Bear and fuel buildup, my father and two other men were caught in a wildfire when the wind changed and two arms of the fire came together, trapping them. Against all odds, they survived, suffering only smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion. Things are much worse now, as people continue to move into areas they should not be, and climate change is creating more extreme fire conditions. We can change the latter, but we are going to have to recognize and accept that there is not much we can do about the latter. Fires, as all fire fighters know, are not put out by people, they are put out by weather. We need to stop pretending otherwise. Ecosystems are going to change, no matter what we do. Forests and grasslands are not likely to stay as we are used to them. Like it or not, we are going to have to accept and adapt to that, too. In the face of limited funding, the most rational thing to do is
    put the money where it actually does some good: in fire prevention and in funding the traditional management of national lands that the Forest Service was meant to do. Yes, more rational building restrictions are needed. Local governments who allow building in fire-prone areas should be responsible (and pay for) first response. Homeowners should have to pay insurance rates commensurate with the risk. And the rest of us need to take a responsible attitude toward our national lands. They are not a playground. They are our national heritage, and the future seed of our ecological future.

  • Annie Stratton

    And what are you doing to make a difference? Talked to your congressman lately? Attended a local planning meeting? Joined a group working to educate the public? Learned the nuances of the impacts of climate change? Examined how the sequester came about and just who is responsible for not preventing it? Time we all stopped pointing fingers, stopped speaking of ourselves as victims, and started acting like citizens of a democratic nation. Only way it’s going to become one.

  • Gene Conway

    Congress is guilty of arson. Maybe this will give you some ideas.

  • Cliff Potts

    The sad fact that Bill Moyers completely misses is that the conditions that exist in the National Forests are primarily the result of the US Forest Service regulating the traditional stewards of the land out of business and off of the Federal Lands. For thirty years, the loggers and ranchers have been denied profitable access, therefore the underbrush and detritus has built up to the point that conflagration is inevitable, climate change or no climate change. For over 100 years, loggers and ranchers have protected the land through grazing and the thinning done by permitted logging. With private business no longer able to engage, our forests have turned into thickets that not only are ripe tinder for any spark, man caused or natural, they can’t even sustain the native wildlife. The US Forest Service has lost the battle to be able to suppress wildfires that threaten lives, homes, businesses or National Treasures. Not only do the suppression efforts cost more than the government can pay, the Forest Service’s own thinning efforts are mismanaged and underfunded and unsustainable. There are some fires that are best to let burn, to assist in balancing the eco-systems. In spite of that observation, the United States Forest Service has an affirmative duty to protect private lands from their self generated, grossly inefficient, bureaucratic management practices. The US Forest Service should be rightly proud that they manage the federal lands for the common welfare of the entire nation. Yet, even though they are the Federal government, no landowner can be allowed to create or sustain conditions on their land that threaten the lives, property and welfare of the neighboring public. The only solution to the catch-22 dilemma of inadequate funding is to expeditiously, yet responsibly, engage private enterprise solutions in lieu of the failed, catastrophic and gross mismanagement of the United States Forest Service.

  • George Costich

    It’s Time to Put The Republican Congressmen and Senators On the Forest Fire Trucks! They Need To Learn to Lead by Going First!

  • Roy-in-Boise

    This is just more traditional rape-the-land dogma. The traditional stewards over graze and logged beyond sustainable yield. This is public land not the land of your so called traditional stewards.

  • Anonymous

    “Obama had the nerve…”? And what about Congress? Or are you another one of those scum using this as a political ploy?

  • Anonymous

    You’re exactly right. He might just as well be jumping up and down, waving his arms, and screaming, “I’m a paid SHILL!!!!”

  • politicky

    “…For over 100 years, loggers and ranchers have protected the land through grazing and the thinning done by permitted logging…”

    You ever see the way the loggers did it? They clear cut large tracts that were easily accessible.

  • Tara Crowley

    I read “Stalwart” as “Entrenched”

  • Cliff Potts

    Using your analogy, it would be more accurate to say the dogs were groomed, with a few nicks to the skin, that were not and should not have been overlooked. Profits and earnings are what pays the taxes that are fighting the fires. Without profits and earnings, there would be nothing to provide to the government, to which you are looking toward for solutions. It would be much better if the US Forest Service would oversee the land to be used productively as a tool to protect this national treasure for future generations. The catastrophic forest fires are going to get worse, because nothing is being done effectively to protect the land from devastating fire. I live within 20 miles of the 440,000 acre Rodeo-Chedeski fire of 2004, where I worked in the evacuation shelter. I provided emergency services at the Wallow fire that burned over 500,000 acres two years ago. I’ve lived adjacent to the forests by choice for over 30 years. In addition to the Yarnell Firefighters that lost their lives, it was near my hometown that 6 firefighters lost their lives in the 25,000 acre Dude fire of 1992, which at that time was a record sized forest fire. The fires are getting bigger and more fierce and they will continue to get even more catastrophic, if something effective is not done. I’m not a rancher nor a logger nor am I closely related to anyone that is. It is clearly observable that with few exceptions, the ranchers have maintained the watershed and provided water ponds for the cows and the wildlife. By providing for the cattle on the land, the grasses proliferate and decrease the proliferation of scrub brush that choke out the natural wildlife and which is the primary ladder fuel that is causal to the fierce crown fires. When a tract of land is responsibly logged, which is managed by the Forest Service, the contractor is obligated to take only the permitted trees, as determined by the Forest Service and to clear all their slash (trimmings) and to clear to scrub also, while also minimizing erosion, stream pollution and providing roads that allow for public access. The potential solutions to responsible forest land management don’t have to include the same management practices of the past. Yet, the only practical solution is to include “for profit” businesses in the utilization of the land to achieve the managed result of a sustainable forest without the ever increasingly destructive wildfires.

  • Anonymous

    Blame the ignorant, uninformed, uninvolved electorate. They continue to elect people to the congress who have no concern for the American people. They are there to promote themselves, make themselves wealthy, and get on TV as often as possible.

    Start electing real people, not trust fund babies or members of both parties extremes, people who truly care about THIS country, and OUR people first.

  • Anonymous

    CONGRESS is allowing and extending the atrocities NOT President Obama, he doesn’t control funding that is in the hands of the MORONS of the Republican right.

  • Cliff Potts

    Living in Arizona, I have never witnessed “clear-cut” of any large tract. I’ve seen the pictures that have been taken on private land and I can tell you from first hand account, living in the same area as the results 440,000 acre Rodeo-Chedeski fire that occurred in 2004, there has never been a logging event that can compare to the vast devastation of this magnitude. Living adjacent to the forest for over 30 years, I have seen the result of responsible logging, where the undergrowth (ladder fuel for uncontrollable crown fires) is thinned, selected trees (selected by the Forest Service) are harvested, erosion is controlled and the habitat is improved for more diverse vegetation and improved habitat for most species. It is a demonstrated fact that the “endangered” spotted owl moves into logged over areas, in lieu of the brush choked thickets that have been bureaucratically preserved in their “native” state for them, and yet have become nothing more than fire traps. The even more tragic fact is that the timber companies have been effectively forced out of business by restrictive regulations and policies imposed by the federal government in the name of forest preservation. The logging industry in the Southwest is no longer in any effective form of existence. I think we can all see how that is working by mournfully counting the bodies of wild land firefighters and the charred acres of new moonscape all over the Western United States.