Improving our Firefighting Abilities - San Diego Union-Tribune

Southern California's recent wildfires should be a wake-up call, spurring us to improve how we guard against, fight, and recover from these massive blazes.

The stakes are high. This year's fires scorched more than 500,000 acres, killed 10, injured 130 and destroyed more than 2,000 homes. Damage is estimated to top $2 billion.

Most of these fires are out now, but all the evidence suggests the wildfire risk is increasing.

Global warming is real, extending droughts and fire season. Fires burn hotter and with more ferocity. That means more deaths, more lost homes and higher firefighting costs. The risks are compounded by population growth in wildfire areas; California alone has more than 5 million homes in this so-called “wildland-urban interface.”

So, what to do?

First, we must ensure enough federal funding to fight next year's wildfires – a difficult task thanks to a record fire season this year that strained federal firefighting coffers.

As a critical first step, I worked with Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, and Norm Dicks, D-Wash., to secure $500 million in funding for emergency fire suppression, risk-reduction and recovery needs. I hope and expect that much of this money will be spent in Southern California.

Second, we must investigate what happened in these recent blazes, particularly the federal, state and local response.

To this end, the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, which I chair, will hold a field hearing in San Diego today. I will be joined by Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., the subcommittee's ranking member.

Together, we will gather critical facts on how and why these devastating wildfires happened. Our hope is that this vital information will point the way forward – to stronger fire prevention, firefighting and aid that gets fire victims back on their feet.

Third, it is vital that we step up efforts to reduce the hazardous fuels – such as dead and dying trees – that feed these conflagrations.

After wildfires swept Southern California in 2003, Congress authorized $760 million a year to remove hazardous fuels. But actual spending has fallen short. This year's Senate appropriations bill directs $528 million toward removing hazardous fuels. That's roughly $34 million more than the president asked for, but short of what's needed.

A legislative package I recently introduced includes grant programs to help states and local governments increase this important work. It also builds on the example of several communities that have shown that wildfire risk can be significantly reduced. Two examples:

In Rancho Santa Fe, strict new building and fire codes, and regular inspections, saved many homes in the path of the Witch Creek fire.

No homes in Stevenson Ranch near Santa Clarita were damaged in the Magic fire – partly due to the community's commitment to clearing brush to at least 200 feet from homes.

These “best practices” need to go in the toolbox of every local government in California. The best way to achieve this is through the Fire Safe Community Act, which I hope Congress passes soon.

Among other things, it would create a national “fire safe” ordinance, to set national standards for building codes, “defensible space” around homes and hazardous fuels reduction.

As an incentive, communities that adopt this model ordinance would be eligible to have the federal government pay up to 90 percent of their costs of fighting wildfires.

Fourth, we need to ensure that military aircraft are put in the air quickly when wildfires strike.

There have been reports that bureaucratic red tape may have delayed deployment of military airplanes and firefighters during these recent wildfires. This is unacceptable, and finding out exactly what happened is a top goal of my San Diego trip.

This much I know already: Both the Department of Defense and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection need to work together to produce clear and unambiguous guidelines on the deployment of military aircraft – before the next big fire hits.

Finally, we need to improve aid to fire victims.

Many homeowners are now learning the costs of rebuilding outstrip their insurance coverage. And some residents – homeowners and renters alike – are economically devastated by this disaster

Today, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can provide roughly $28,000 to households whose rebuilding insurance falls short. I believe this should be increased to $50,000.

We also need to reinstitute a FEMA program, discontinued several years ago, to provide mortgage and rental assistance, for a limited time, to households on the brink of financial ruin – for example, facing imminent foreclosure.

It is bad enough that our fellow citizens have been hit by natural disaster. We cannot allow this to turn into economic disaster as well.

As Californians, we know wildfires are a question of when, not if. So we must all rise to this challenge – and do all we can to reduce the risk, and ensure we are better prepared to fight and recover from the next great fire.