WASHINGTON, D.C. - As fire fighters nationwide gear up for the 1997 forest fire season in the wake of last year's 96,000 forest fires, Congressman Bob Smith (R-OR), Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, today said the U.S. Forest Service must place greater emphasis on managing forest resources to prevent catastrophic fires and avoid the use of prescribed fire in the high risk summer months.
At a hearing today, Smith, who has made forestry a principal focus of the Agriculture Committee in the 105th Congress, questioned the U.S. Forest Service's use of prescribed (intentionally set or allowed to burn) fires in the critical summer months when the risk of catastrophic fire is greatest.
"It simply makes no sense to have prescribed fires in July, August, and September when our ability to control the fires is minimal. That critical mistake cost Oregon dearly last year. When it's hot and dry, you can't control a fire, you can only get out of its way. It's a reckless policy and it's endangering our forest resources. We can teach our children not to play with fire, but for some reason, we can't teach our bureaucrats," Smith said.
"The Forest Service spent $1 billion on fire suppression last year and this year will spend only $50 million on managing the resource to prevent catastrophic fires. What a terrible confusion of priorities. Common-sense, proactive management would save money, save lives, and protect the forest resource and all its values," said Smith.
Smith cited the Wildcat fire in Eastern Oregon's Malheur National Forest, as an example of a prescribed fire run amok. That fire, begun by a lightning strike in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness and allowed to burn by the U.S. Forest Service, grew uncontrollably into a wildfire and burned some 10,382 acres. The Salt Creek Fire and the Sloans Ridge fire in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest were both also begun by lightning and allowed to burn, each becoming a wildfire and burning 63,000 and 11,020 acres respectively. The Forest Service spent nearly $16 million in total fire suppression costs for the Salt Creek and Sloans Ridge fires. Nationwide, six million acres were lost to forest fires last year.
"Nearly 40 million acres of national forests in America are at extreme risk of destruction by catastrophic wildfire. Under present policies, only 1 million acres per year are being treated to lessen fuel loads and reduce that risk. That's just not good enough. At that rate, it would take 40 years to rehabilitate those forests, if they don't burn up by then. And if they do burn, we'll lose everything - the forests, the streams, the wildlife - everything. Clearly, the agencies' efforts are not meeting the enormous risks to our forests," Smith said.
"Wildfires don't choose between living and dead forests, and they are a lot less environmentally sensitive than foresters and land managers. The agencies have the knowledge, expertise, and we certainly have the need, to rehabilitate these sick and dangerous forests, it just seems as though they don't have the will," Smith said.
Smith represents Oregon's Second Congressional District, which includes most of eastern, central, and southern Oregon, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district is home to ten national forests.