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Feds vow to help California battle fires; U.S. Forest Service changes strategy

by Dustin Gardiner, San Francisco Chronicle |

ALDER SPRINGS, Mendocino National Forest, Calif. — The Biden administration vowed Wednesday that it will dedicate far more resources to help California battle and prevent catastrophic wildfires, conceding that decades of neglect have left many forests on federal land dangerously overgrown.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined the federal government’s new approach during a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom on a scarred hilltop in the Mendocino National Forest, where the August Complex fires torched more than a million acres last year. Vilsack said the commitment will include “more boots on the ground” to fight fires and billions of dollars for the U.S. Forest Service to clear vegetation through forest management projects.

“We need to do a better job, and he has told us that we need to do a better job,” Vilsack said of Newsom, as acrid smoke from fires raging farther north filled the air. “I think it’s fair to say, over the generations, over the decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap. But the reality is that this has caught up with us.”

The pledge came as the Forest Service has faced controversy in recent weeks over its policy allowing some smaller fires to burn themselves out. Last week, Newsom told President Biden, during a virtual White House meeting, that the the agency’s “wait-and-see” approach to fighting fires on federal land is harmful.

“We can’t afford that any longer.” Newsom said, referring to the policy as an “elephant in the room” when it came to fighting fires on federal land.

But the agency said it will shift away from that policy this week. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, in a letter sent to agency staff, said the practice would be suspended until fires in the Western U.S. dissipate.

Vilsack said Wednesday that the Biden administration faces an uphill climb managing forests after decades of underfunding for prevention work left federal forests and grasslands poorly managed and vulnerable to the fire-prone conditions brought on by the effects of climate change, such as extreme heat and severe drought.

He said the federal infrastructure bill, which is crawling through the Senate, includes billions of dollars to ramp up forest-management efforts. Vilsack said that would be a crucial “down payment” to allow the Forest Service to remove a hazardous buildup of fuels, better compensate firefighters and restore forests burned in recent years.

“I’m here to tell you we are prepared to do a better job — if we have the resources,” he said.

Newsom said the federal administration’s commitment was “music to our ears” and comes after the state has separately set aside about $1.5 billion for forest and vegetation management in its budget.

But it could take months before more federal funding materializes. That means much of the support won’t come until well into this year’s fire season, which has already torched nearly 580,000 acres in California.

“I know that it’s going to take more time than we have in this season,” Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said after meeting with Newsom and Vilsack. “But we’re looking toward the future. ... A commitment to these resources now will help us in the years to come.”

The cooperative tone between California and the federal administration on fire preparations is a stark shift from last season, when former President Donald Trump blamed the state for not doing more to thin forests, denied the science on climate change and threatened to pull back federal funding.

Of course, having a Democrat in the White House has improved the relationship with Newsom. Another factor: Vice President Kamala Harris, the former California senator, has also made a point of prioritizing assistance for the state’s wildfire response.

Ike Irby, a policy advisor to Harris, said having somebody in the administration who has, over the past four years, toured the ashen scars of the North Bay fires in Santa Rosa or the Camp Fire in Paradise has helped to elevate the issue in a human way.

“I will reemphasize the value of having somebody with lived experience in D.C. talking about these issues,” he said. “Bringing that kind of insight and bringing that to the conversation I think has real demonstrated value in helping then push that action.”

Vilsack and the governor spent little time Wednesday publicly discussing the controversy that has surrounded the Forest Service over its policy for allowing some fires to run their course, which critics have labeled its “let it burn” policy.

The Forest Service denied ever employing a “let it burn” policy, an agency representative said. Instead, it relies on a self-described system of managing fires for “resource benefit,” which aims to allow naturally occurring fires to burn while assessing them and their impact on the ecosystem.

The agency has been scrutinized over its handling of the Tamarack Fire, which started on federal land in Alpine County on July 4. Forest Service officials said they were aware of the fire early on, which was burning in a single tree that was struck by lightning. They believed the blaze would burn itself out, given it was surrounded by natural barriers and there were few natural fuels nearby.

No crews were sent to respond to the fire initially. Less than a week later, it had exploded to more than 23,000 acres. As of Wednesday, the fire had torched nearly 70,000 acres and was 82 percent contained.

In his letter to Forest Service staff, Moore explained the suspension of the resource management strategy. “When Western fire activity abates, we will resume using all the tools in our toolbox, including wildfire and prescribed fire in the right places and at the right time,” he wrote.

Forest Service spokeswoman Babete Anderson said in an e-mail: “Every fire has a suppression objective, and our response strategy is to only commit our fire resources in instances where they have a high probability of success and they can operate safely and effectively.”

Despite the policy change, Moore said in the letter that the Forest Service faces significant challenges, with more than 70 large fires burning across the country and 22,000 people fighting them. He said both numbers were “nearly three times more than the 10-year average for the month of July.”

The 2021 fire season “is different from any before,” Moore wrote, and with 70 percent of the West experiencing drought and firefighting resources worn thin by coronavirus infections, “in short, we are in a national crisis.”

Vilsack said on Wednesday that while the Forest Service has funding to respond to early calls on fires, it must “prioritize at this point in time, and that’s based on ... where there is the highest risk to life and property.”