SEATTLE (Reuters) - Lawmakers were urged to boost federal funding for local wildfire prevention efforts at a meeting in Seattle on Thursday during a summer that has seen scores of major blazes across the drought-parched West.
Fire experts were addressing the field hearing of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held in Washington state, which has experienced its largest cluster of deadly fires on record.
Michael Medler, chair of environmental studies at Western Washington University, said increasing controlled burns and creating greater barriers between development and forests were key to reducing future destruction from wildfires.
“To put it bluntly, the last century of fire policies have left our forests explosive,” he told the meeting, called by committee member U.S. Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, after she toured blazes in the state.
The fires have stretched resources thin, prompting a rare enlistment of reinforcements from the U.S. military and as far afield as Australia. The blazes have scorched nearly 1.7 million acres (685,000 hectares) in the Western United States,
Thousands of firefighters are battling more than 60 large wildfires, and 13 have been killed so far this year.
Windy conditions on Thursday were expected to fan the Okanogan Complex fire, Washington state’s largest, said Sierra Hellstrom, a spokeswoman for the firefighting crews. Winds could also clear smoky air that has kept firefighting aircraft grounded, Hellstrom said.
The complex, which has burned 287,704 acres (116,000 hectares), was 17 percent contained on Thursday, up from 10 percent earlier in the week.
Governor Jay Inslee took an aerial tour on Thursday and met crews on the ground. Three firefighters died there last week.
Cantwell said the three firefighters made the ultimate sacrifice trying to protect their communities.
“The need is urgent to make these changes and get better prepared for next fire season,” she said.
An upcoming bipartisan bill will include the creation of a national program to train volunteer firefighters, she added, as well as upgrade the U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker fleet and bolster rural communication infrastructure.
“It will help pay for itself in the long run,” Cantwell said, calling on Congress to pass the bill before next summer.
Peter Goldmark of the Washington state Department of Public Lands said satellite imagery and drones could be used to improve early wildfire detection.
“The wildland fire environment is unlike anything we have ever faced and we must adapt,” Goldmark told the lawmakers.
Reporting by Bryan Cohen in Seattle, Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho, and Shelby Sebens in Portland, Ore.; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Peter Cooney