- Associated Press - Thursday, August 27, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - As Washington and other Western states battle huge blazes this summer, two U.S. senators said at a field hearing in Seattle that more needs to be done to prepare for and help prevent future wildfires.

The federal legislation they are backing, the Wildland Fire Management Act, would establish community plans to reduce the risks of fires, support forest thinning and increase the ability to fight major fires so they don’t grow into infernos that destroy homes and businesses.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., told The Associated Press before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing at Seattle University she began working on fire legislation after last year’s Carlton Complex fires - at the time the largest in the state’s history.

“The focus needs to be on preparedness and prevention,” she said. “We need to do work in advance.”

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., co-hosted the hearing and said the country should shift away from fire suppression and toward providing the tools needed to help communities prevent fires.

One element in the bill would eliminate the “fire borrowing” problem. This happens when money is taken from the U.S. Forest Service’s fire prevention budget to cover the costs of fighting fires. That practice has kept the agency from getting out ahead of wildland fires, Cantwell said.

Peter Goldmark, commissioner of the Washington State Department of Public Lands, agreed prevention programs would help reduce the fuel that leads to the mega fires burning in the West. Tree spacing needs to be increased and fuels on the ground removed so that fires stay low instead of in the crowns of trees.

He also said the federal government should invest more in early detection technology and spread firefighting resources so when a blaze is identified, it can be extinguished more quickly.

“The response times need to be brought down considerably,” he said.

Cantwell said part of the plan would be to update the Forest Service’s air tanker fleet while funding basic disaster equipment - everything from satellite phones to back-up generators. Those materials should be stored at sites around the country for quick deployment.

To make any wildfire legislation work, communities need to take part in prevention plans, she said.

Nick Goulette, project director of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, told the panel that home and land-owners need to take responsibility for ensuring property is cleared of fuels They’ve had some success in Northern California with establishing codes and standards that encourage creating defensible space, he said.

Goldmark said in the Carlton fire, 80 percent of the homes that had taken preventative measures survived the blaze.

Cantwell said they have bi-partisan support for making these changes, and now need to take it back to “the other Washington” and convince members of Congress whose states are not burning up that dealing with wildfires should be a national priority.

“If we don’t take action, it will only cost the American taxpayer more,” Goulette said.

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Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle

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