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We need to manage forests better

The threat posed by wildfire has been on the forefront of Washingtonians’ concerns this year for good reason. And Congress is moving forward with legislation to help prevent catastrophic wildfires.

This week is the one-year anniversary of the start of the tragic Carlton Complex Fire in Okanogan County. The most destructive in state history, the fire grew rapidly, destroying forests, hundreds of homes and businesses. The fire burned more than a quarter-million acres.

I have seen first-hand the lasting environmental and economic damage caused by the fire. Communities are still recovering and working hard to rebuild. While we salute the brave efforts of firefighters, first responders and residents who came together to support one another, the Carlton Complex is a sobering reminder that proactive solutions are needed to improve public land management and prevent, prepare for and respond to wildfires.

This summer, the threat of wildfire in Eastern Washington is again acute: many rural, forested communities are facing severe drought and hot temperatures, creating dangerous conditions for an early start to the wildfire season. We have already seen the Sleepy Hollow fire devastate Wenatchee, burning almost 3,000 acres, destroying 29 homes and damaging local businesses.

While the causes of wildfires can be unpredictable, there are ways to reduce the risks to rural communities, the environment, and the economy. It is critical to use every tool available to manage national forests and keep public lands healthy.

I supported passage of House Resolution 2647 — known as the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 — last week. It passed in the House on a vote of 262 to 167. This bipartisan legislation would take a comprehensive approach and provide tools to improve management of federal forests.

Forests overcrowded by dead or diseased trees create tinder boxes with a high potential for fire. The Resilient Federal Forests Act encourages healthy forests by streamlining the environmental approval process for harvesting and thinning projects. The bill would protect the environment by speeding up reforestation efforts and habitat restoration.

The legislation also tackles the problem of “fire borrowing” by allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to transfer funds to the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management when other suppression funding has been exhausted.

Another bill before Congress would explore innovative use of technology to fight fires. I have cosponsored House Resolution 2909, the Protecting Firefighters and Promoting Innovation Act, to study the use of unmanned aircraft systems, or “drones” for wildland firefighting. Drone technology could be used to assist in fire suppression efforts, provide real-time updates to assist firefighters and reduce the risk to firefighters.

If the Senate approves the Resilient Federal Forests Act and it is signed into law by the President, it will go into effect immediately, requiring the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to dramatically improve the health and resiliency of federal forests and rangelands. I urge the Senate to approve this vital legislation as soon as possible.

The health of public forests and the economy of rural communities depend on it.

Congressman Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, represents Okanogan County as part of the 4th Congressional District. Call him at 202-225-5816.

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