After smoke drifts east, US Congress eyes spending billions to curb wildfire threat

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – Billowing smoke from wildfires was so thick over the summer that it blocked out mountain views in the western United States and prompted health warnings for vulnerable people – even those far from the deadly blazes – to stay indoors.

But it was the drift of the worsening air as far east as New York and Washington DC that may have been the spark lawmakers needed to advance major spending packages now moving on Capitol Hill that aim to address the threat, said US Senator Michael Bennet.

“I hate to say it, but this year smoke finally made it to the East Coast – and I think people on the East Coast started to grasp the urgency of the situation,” Mr Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Beyond paid leave and healthcare, House Democrats’ US$1.75 trillion (S$2.37 trillion) social spending package moving through Congress includes about US$27 billion for forestry programmes, with an eye on curbing the climate-fuelled blazes ravaging the western US.

The funding is down from US$40 billion in an earlier version, as Democrats scramble to scale back a more expansive US$3.5 trillion draft package to accommodate cost-minded members.

Advocates, though, say even the lower amount – combined with wildfire funding in President Joe Biden’s US$1 trillion-plus infrastructure package – represents a historic step forward.

“It is still the biggest forest climate investment in US history – it’s not even close,” said Mr Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a non-profit group.

“Forests held up much better than a lot of other things in the Bill,” he said. “They were recognised as uniquely effective in addressing both climate mitigation and climate adaptation and resilience.”

Forests are one of the best natural “carbon sinks” – meaning they pull climate-changing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow and store it.

That means proper forest conservation and restoration efforts – as well as prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfires that have eaten up millions of acres of land this year – are critical in the battle to curb global warming.

Mr Bennet estimated that costs for wildfire mitigation measures run about US$1,500 per acre – far lower than the US$50,000 per acre to fight fires that have already started.

But “in the absence of federal funding, communities have had to spend money that they shouldn’t have had to spend doing the forest restoration,” he said.

Firefighters use a hose line as trees burn during the Windy Fire in the Sequoia National Forest in California on Sept 22, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

More than half of the US$27 billion in forestry funding included in the US$1.75 trillion social spending Bill, which the House aims to pass this week, would go toward “hazardous fuels reduction projects”.

That’s things like clearing brush through prescribed burns or mechanical thinning so that when fires do occur they’re not as intense, said Ms Haley Leslie-Bole, a research analyst with the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based think-tank.

“It is expensive to go in and do that – but as Senator Bennet said, it’s way more expensive to fight these catastrophic conflagrations,” Ms Leslie-Bole said.

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Federal firefighting costs for efforts by the US Forest Service and Interior Department agencies to suppress fires have totalled close to US$2 billion every year on average over the past decade, according to the National Interagency Fire Centre.

In 2021, wildland fires have burned through more than 6.5 million acres in the United States as of early November, the agency said – about in line with the recent 10-year average.

Still, the overall threat is spreading.

The prevalence of “fire-prone” days is expanding across parts of the western United States, including in some places, from Oklahoma to Nebraska, that may not expect them, according to an August study from Climate Central, a nonprofit group.

Halting forest loss

As lawmakers in Washington DC wrestle with Mr Biden’s domestic agenda this month, the president travelled to Scotland to speak at the UN climate change talks, where he promoted a global deal aimed at cutting deforestation by 2030.

“Preserving forests and other ecosystems can and should play an important role in meeting our ambitious climate goals as part of the net-zero emissions strategy we all have,” Mr Biden said.

More than half of the US$27 billion in forestry funding included in the US$1.75 trillion social spending Bill would go toward “hazardous fuels reduction projects”. PHOTO: AFP

More than 100 global leaders pledged at the COP26 talks to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade, but environmentalists called for more funding and tough regulation of businesses and financiers linked to forest destruction.

Loss of forests has major implications for global goals to curb warming, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-heating carbon emissions produced worldwide, but release the carbon they store when they rot or are burned.

In the United States, some environmentalists have warned that too much forest thinning in the name of wildfire management could be counterproductive and that commercial loggers could look for ways to cash in on forest-clearing projects.

To address those concerns, lawmakers have included guardrails on the new funding.

For example, some US$4 billion for hazardous fuel reduction in the US$1.75 trillion Bill is supposed to go to projects that are “primarily noncommercial in nature” and that prioritise the restoration and retention of old-growth and large trees.

Logging and timber interests say the legislation is too restrictive.

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“The timber industry is ready to get to work, in spite of the unnecessary obstacles Congress opted to put in the (spending) Bill,” said Mr Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition.

Mr Bennet said there’s a choice to make about how to approach the country’s forests, given that people generally accept the threats associated with climate change.

“We can manage them properly and we can do what we can to try to mitigate the chance of there being fires,” he said. “Or we can just sit back and fight the fires, watching the CO2 head into the atmosphere.”

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