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As wildfires explode in the West, Forest Service can't afford prevention efforts

By Anna M. Phillips, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Residents of the densely wooded hillsides near Bend, Oregon, are serious about fire.

They gather up fallen branches, prune trees and clear their gutters of pine needles. Their leaders in Deschutes County have banned wood-shake roofs and are considering adopting tougher building codes to make homes more fire-resistant. Every square mile of this growing county has been declared a wildfire hazard zone.

Yet for all of that effort, spurred by devastating wildfires that tore through central Oregon in the 1990s, Deschutes still has to worry about its neighbor — the U.S. Forest Service.

The county is nestled against Deschutes National Forest, where the federal agency has more than 250,000 acres worth of unfinished projects aimed at preventing catastrophic wildfire that are on hold because it doesn't have enough funding.

"Each year we have literally hundreds of fires that start in the forest, and any one of those, on a bad day, could have a disastrous result," said Ed Keith, county forester for Deschutes. "It boggles my mind to look at the fires in Oregon this year and how many millions we've spent and how much those dollars are needed to get this work done that's waiting for money."

It's not just the one forest. Throughout California, Oregon and other Western states, the Forest Service has a growing backlog of millions of acres of forest management projects that are ready to go, requiring only funding and manpower to complete. This work involves thinning out small trees, clearing dry brush and intentionally setting beneficial fires, known as prescribed fire, to prevent flames from leaping out of forests and into nearby communities.


It's work that's more important than ever as climate change fuels larger and more destructive wildfires. Fast-moving blazes have roared through more than 5 million acres on the West Coast this year, killing 31 people in California.

But a century of focus on fire suppression and cuts to fire prevention programs have led the Forest Service to postpone work that experts said could prevent small fires from becoming conflagrations.

There have been cases of wildfires beating the federal government to the job. Conservation advocates said it's become common to have fires erupt on public land where proposed work was either being planned or was on hold for lack of funding. A Forest Service spokesman in Oregon said the agency had not begun to assess whether the fires that swept across the state last month had burned in places due for prevention work, but "it's likely there were some impacts given the size," he said.

The Forest Service's backlog exposes an uncomfortable truth for the Trump administration. Although President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed deadly wildfires in California on the state's forest management, neither his administration nor Congress has given the Forest Service adequate funding to clear dead trees and brush from federally owned land.


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