By Toni G. Atkins
When it comes to wildfires, California is ground zero.
This year, wildfires in California have consumed thousands of acres of land, destroyed more than 1,900 homes and led to the tragic loss of eight lives. Over that short time period, the state has spent almost $360 million trying to put out wildfires, including the Rocky, Butte and Valley fires that ravaged Northern California communities.
California has stepped up to the plate; we’ve deployed 5,875 firefighters from across the state and we’ve suppressed 307,435 acres of burning land. And we’ll continue to move families safely away if they’re in danger.
But we need our federal partners to do more.
Today, the U.S. Forest Service spends more than half of its annual budget on fire suppression, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. The dramatic increase in fire suppression spending means that spending on fire prevention has precipitously declined. For those of us charged with balancing the state budget, we know that the declining federal investment in prevention means increased frequency, severity and cost of future wildfires.
That’s why in August I authored a resolution at the National Conference of State Legislatures to support federal policy changes that free up new investments in wildfire prevention activities, such as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The resolution was adopted unanimously with strong bipartisan support and will allow the conference to advocate on behalf of these important policy changes, throwing the weight of all 50 state legislatures behind it.
Archaic budgeting at the federal level makes new investments in fire prevention difficult. But California Congressional leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Ken Calvert, are working to reform the system by supporting the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.
With fires continuing to burn across the west, federal land management agencies are running out of money. Just last month, the Forest Service had to transfer $250 million from non-fire suppression programs just to ensure that burning fires could be put out. This makes sense in the short term; but by doing this year after year, federal agencies and Congress neglect much needed investments in fire prevention.
While wildfire season is winding down, wildfires are expected to continue burning stronger and longer due to climate change.
Congress must act now. Every day, firefighters risk their lives to stop the spread of disastrous wildfires, while states and the federal government struggle to find funding to fight bigger and more dangerous wildfires. We owe it to the brave men and women on the fire lines — and the families being displaced — to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act and ensure that there is sufficient funding for the suppression and prevention of wildfires.
Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) is Assembly Speaker and represents the 78th Assembly District.
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