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Congress could fund wildfire prevention, forest mitigation in upcoming spending bill

It's been another record-breaking year coast-to-coast with wildfires
An inmate firefighter from the Trinity River Conservation Camp uses a drip torch to slow the Fawn Fire
Posted at 2:12 PM, Sep 24, 2021

FALL RIVER, MA — Wildfires aren't just breaking records in the western United States.

Dave Celino, the Chief Fire Warden in Massachusetts, said its happening in the East, too.

"This year through June, we've accounted for almost 850 wildfires that's burned almost 1,600 acres,” Celino said during a walk in Fall River State Forest.

In fact, Celino said Massachusetts had its largest fire in 20 years earlier this year.

If you add up all the fires from Minnesota to Maine, places that you may think fire danger is always low, new records are being set as well.

In the Eastern Region of the U.S., the Forest Service reports 107,000 plus acres have burned this year.

That's 2,500 more than the 10-year average.

Celino said some people may not hear more about wildfires because it's "what your perception is of a catastrophic event."

Fires in Celino's area of the country tend to be small and they aren’t burning large swaths of land like the ones in the West. But just because they are small, doesn’t make them any less destructive. More people live on the edges of those forests.

"The fires that concern us in the Northeast are those 5, 10-acre fires," Celino said.

"People live on the edge of these wildlands, we cannot instantly call five air tankers in," Celino said.

"I can’t even get one air tanker in."

Push for resources

Celino and others would like more resources to prevent fires as opposed to just responding them, fearing forests around the country remain primed for a disaster.

"It’s a complex issue. There is nothing simple about it," said Brad Simpkins with the U.S. Forest Service. "Prescribed burning is one tool in the tool box."

Prescribed burning is when fires are intentionally set to an area of land to make it less flammable.

Simpkins said a lack of time and money are preventing more prescribed burns from taking place.

In Massachusetts, around 16,000 acres have been identified as needing a prescribed burn, but crews can only get to around 2,000 or so a year.

"It takes specialized training for people to run a prescribed burn, and the same people that do a lot of the burning are the same people responding for wildfires," Simpkins said.

Congress considering action

This is where Congress comes in and where a debate over forest funding is unfolding.

"We have not invested in forests, and with climate change, conditions are getting drier," Sen.Michael Bennet (D-CO) said.

Bennet is an influential voice on the subject.

Bennet is Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry's Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources.

He and other Democrats are pushing to include $40 billion in their upcoming multi-trillion spending bill to address forest mitigation, watershed protection and prescribed burning.

In recent days though, it’s become clearer that the spending bill will need to become smaller in order to pass.

Bennet believes fire mitigation will survive the cuts.

"I think it has a very good chance of getting through," Bennet said.

While the country waits on Washington, back in the forests of Massachusetts, Simpkins said thousands of men and women in the country will continue combating fires when called upon, and records will continue to be broken.

"Any one state, California, Montana wherever can’t handle those issues by themselves," he said.