Hot, dirty work of fire suppression needs support

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By Sherry Robinson

The Dog Head Fire in Torrance and Bernalillo counties roared to life just as a couple of important bills were under debate in Congress.
A few upbeat notes: We’ve seen a fast response by helpers to raise money, pitch in at evacuation sites, and bring animals to the State Fair Grounds for safekeeping. Southwest Incident Management posts timely information on its website and has a Facebook page, so if you’re sitting in an evacuation center you know what’s going on.
Fire fighters are, again, our heroes. Locals have been lavish in posting their praise and thanks, except for one guy: “Who will reimburse me for all the days spent in a hotel, and all the food lost in my refrigerator/freezers since the power was cut????”
That provoked a response: “Give these people a break, for crying out loud! It’s a natural flippin’ disaster and people are working their butts off trying to keep others and property safe.”
Past burns teach us that the work should start long before the catastrophic fires with thinning and prescribed burns. We know that years of suppressing fires have left us with overgrown, “doghair” forests that are disasters waiting to happen. So government agencies are doing some prescribed burning and some thinning, but it’s sliver of what needs to happen. Meanwhile, the agencies are spending their money to fight bigger fires and have less remaining for preventive action.
One solution is to treat wildfires as natural disasters and fund their suppression from the same pot that pays for hurricanes and floods.
Recently, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall added such a measure to a budget bill, but last week Udall and other Democrats voted against the bill in the Appropriations Committee because it contained riders that would undermine what he considers bedrock environmental laws that protect air, water, health and endangered species. He did get a bipartisan agreement to increase wild land firefighting funds by $661 million. The bill passed the committee and now goes to the full Senate, and Udall is optimistic about a compromise.
Also before Congress is the Local Enforcement for Local Lands Act, by Utah Republican Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Rob Bishop. It would abolish the law enforcement divisions of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and transfer their authority to state and local governments.
The bill is short on logic. The agencies’ cadre of law enforcement officers isn’t large, but even so, local police struggle to recruit and keep officers. Staffing up to cover more turf would be a challenge. The bill also allows local law enforcement to decide which laws to enforce on federal land. Will your local sheriff care about protecting antiquities or desecration of burial sites or large-scale theft of rock and cactus for landscaping?
This is another bill from the folks who would like to give federal lands to states and counties to manage.
In last year’s legislative session, Sen. Ron Griggs, R-Alamogordo, argued for giving federal land to the states. “There’s no reason BLM land couldn’t be controlled by the state. The State Forester already does a better job than the federal government,” Griggs said, citing no evidence whatsoever.
State Forester Eddie Tudor supported the idea, adding, “We’re a small organization. We’d have to figure something out about fire suppression.”
I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.
So far, these public-lands bills have died on the noisy objections of the hunting-fishing-recreating public, but the issue will probably return.
The Dog Head Fire won’t be the only one in what promises to be a miserable fire season. With each one, we have the opportunity to ponder public land management and Eddie Tudor’s dilemma, to “figure something out about fire suppression.”