Press Releases

Tree mortality behind record-breaking fires

Washington—Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) this week urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the U.S. Forest Service, and the Office of Management and Budget to make additional funds available to address California’s tree mortality crisis, the main factor behind increasingly destructive wildfires.

“After five years of historic drought, which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come. California has already weathered several devastating wildfires this year, despite the fact that our traditional fire season has not yet even begun. Addressing the unprecedented tree mortality crisis in California is an urgent public safety issue that must be met with the most aggressive action possible,” Senator Feinstein wrote.

With California’s traditional fall fire season yet to begin, the state has so far faced 5,354 fires this year that have burned a total of 496,126 acres, resulted in seven fatalities and destroyed more than 1,270 homes and other structures. The state and federal governments have brought more than 12,000 firefighters and 92 aircraft to bear. However, as we have seen with the Soberanes Fire in Monterey County that burned straight through the fire retardant that was supposed to halt its advance, firefighters are reporting unpredictable and unprecedented fire behavior due to five years of extreme drought and the resulting buildup of hazardous fuels.

Full text of the letter to Secretary Vilsack follows: 

September 7, 2016 

The Honorable Thomas J. Vilsack
Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250

Dear Tom,

I ask that you reprogram $38 million in previously-appropriated funding in order to execute 19 high-priority tree removal projects, for which environmental clearances have already been granted, that cover 38,000 acres of federal land in the three national forests most affected by California’s tree mortality crisis.

After five years of historic drought, which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come. California has already weathered several devastating wildfires this year, despite the fact that our traditional fire season has not yet even begun. Addressing the unprecedented tree mortality crisis in California is an urgent public safety issue that must be met with the most aggressive action possible.

The California Governor’s Tree Mortality Task Force, which includes federal, state, local, and private interests, has identified 19 shovel-ready tree removal projects on federal lands that are simply awaiting the necessary federal funding. The projects are located on 38,000 acres of Tier 1 High Hazard Zones in the Stanislaus, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests that present the most severe threats to human life. The 19 projects have already received all necessary environmental clearances, including NEPA. I have attached a July 15, 2016 letter to you from Chief Ken Pimlott of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection describing the 19 projects in greater detail.

I recognize that the Forest Service budget faces significant pressure from the current rules governing how Congress appropriates money for wildfire suppression, as you pointed out in your August 5, 2016 letter to me, and I want you to know that I am doing everything I can to get a budget fix passed. I have cosponsored the standalone legislation introduced by Senators Ron Wyden and Mike Crapo; I have joined with Senator Murkowski to include the budget fix in the Fiscal Year 2017 Senate Interior Appropriations bill; I have sent a letter to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging him to move the budget fix through the House; and I have written letters urging the inclusion of the budget fix in the Energy bill conference report as well as in forestry reform legislation being drafted by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

However, I want to remind you that Congress specifically appropriated an extra $600 million for wildfire suppression above the 10-year average in last year’s Omnibus and $823 million more than your Fiscal Year 2016 Budget requested for wildfire suppression. Therefore, there should be no need for fire borrowing this year or for holding back funding for critical fire prevention activities like the 19 NEPA-ready projects mentioned above. These 19 projects are the top priority for the State-Federal Tree Mortality Task Force, and I ask that you reprogram $38 million in previously-appropriated funds in order to execute the projects as quickly as possible.

Sincerely,

Dianne Feinstein

United States Senator

Full text of the letter to Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget follows:

September 7, 2016

The Honorable Shaun Donovan
Director
Office of Management and Budget
725 17th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20503

Dear Director Donovan,

As you work with federal agencies to lay the groundwork for the development of the next Administration’s Fiscal Year 2018 Budget request, I ask that you direct the Forest Service to begin the process of developing a specific and substantial funding request to address the tree mortality crisis facing California.

After five years of historic drought, which has led to the death of an estimated 66 million trees in California alone, my state and its people face a heightened and potentially catastrophic risk of wildfire this year and for years to come. California has already weathered several devastating wildfires this year, despite the fact that our traditional fire season has not yet even begun. Addressing the unprecedented tree mortality crisis in California is an urgent public safety issue that must be met with the most aggressive action possible.

The Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection assess that 5.5 million of the 66 million dead trees pose a particular threat to public safety and must be removed as quickly as possible. Given the division of federal and state responsibility in California, the Forest Service is responsible for 3.7 million of these high-priority dead trees, and the agency estimates that it would need as much as $562 million to cut them all down. However, the Forest Service has budgeted only $32 million in Fiscal Year 2016 for tree removal work in California, just 6 percent of the total funding necessary.

It is clear that the need for additional funding to address tree mortality in California far exceeds recent Administration requests for funding as well as enacted appropriations. Firefighters in California report that the drought and the unprecedented volume of dead trees has led to more unpredictable fire behavior than ever before, which will likely result in even greater wildfire suppression costs in future years.

Given the Forest Service’s $562 million cost projection for critical tree mortality work in California, I ask that you direct the Forest Service to begin the process of developing a specific and substantial funding request in next year’s Budget for this effort. I cannot stress enough the substantial benefit to the safety of my constituents as well as to the federal budget of investing in additional fire prevention activities now in order to reduce wildfire suppression costs in the future.

Sincerely,

Dianne Feinstein

United States Senator

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