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Forest Service Chief Pushes For Change In Fire Prevention


Wildfires are starting to light up California and other parts of the West again. Vegetation from a very wet winter is drying out. And so the chief of the U.S. Forest Service is warning of another catastrophic fire season. And she's pushing to change how the country gets ready for and fights wildfires. NPR's Kirk Siegler has the story.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: At the historic Forest Service headquarters off the National Mall, chief Vicki Christiansen is deploying resources for another long summer of firefighting while also trying to keep an eye on a future of deadly mega-fires. And she says fires are the only disaster we actively go out and try to stop as they're happening. We don't do this with floods or hurricanes, and fires shouldn't be much different.

VICKI CHRISTIANSEN: We ask the public safety officials to prepare the communities, to order the right evacuations, to get the support and help, to work on mitigation, to work on resiliency.

SIEGLER: In the West, cities continue to expand into flammable forests, setting themselves up for potentially worse fires. These woods are stressed from climate change and overgrown from a century of suppressing wildfires. In the last two years, California has seen its most destructive fires on record, including the deadly Camp Fire that decimated most of the foothills town of Paradise.

CHRISTIANSEN: I want to say it's a game-changer. I want to say it's the call to action to implement what we know we need to do about doing business differently.

SIEGLER: So after the Camp Fire, the Trump administration ordered the Forest Service to prioritize restoration projects, including thinning and brush-clearing in forests, controlled burns and logging.

CHRISTIANSEN: It's how we work before the fire starts that is most imperative on how we change our paradigm.

SIEGLER: Christiansen is not the first forest chief to try to change this paradigm and spend more money on upfront mitigation. The agency's budget is still mostly status quo. This year they're forecasting to spend upwards of $2.5 billion to fight fires, compared to only 430 million on that pre-disaster work, like tree thinning or controlled burns. This is a hard thing to try and turn around.

RICH FAIRBANKS: It's getting hotter. There's more fires. And you're sort of in a hole before you even start to talk about mitigation.

SIEGLER: Rich Fairbanks is a retired federal fire boss. He now runs a forestry company in southern Oregon.

FAIRBANKS: It's great that they're talking about scaling up what until now have been sort of experimental burns and experimental thinnings and so forth.

SIEGLER: But he says the need is tenfold what that budget is allocating. Experts who study disaster response also say more of that work and the costs of firefighting should be borne by local communities in these high-risk forests. Alice Hill was a climate adviser to President Obama.

ALICE HILL: There needs to be focus on where and how we build. And the federal government has levers available to it to encourage better behavior.

SIEGLER: In other words, if local governments had to shoulder more of the firefighting costs, they might start restricting new development or enforcing tougher building codes. In the West, some are preparing for this possible new reality. Near Lake Tahoe, Truckee fire chief Bill Seline is walking through a wooded neighborhood where his department is thinning forests to create a fuels break.

BILL SELINE: Hi, how are you? Good to see you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'm still working on my pine needles.

SELINE: Oh, you're good, yeah.


SELINE: Thanks (laughter).

SIEGLER: He's pleased to see folks out clearing pine needles from gutters and brush around their houses. But it's not enough.

SELINE: If we've learned anything from the last two years, it's that we need to be more aggressive with fire prevention and the forest cleanup.

SIEGLER: Truckee is banning most campfires and charcoal barbecues this summer. And in a first for the area, every real estate transaction has to pass a wildfire-defensible-space inspection. Towns like Truckee worry they could easily be the next Paradise, especially this past week, as temperatures neared the triple digits.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.