WASHINGTON — US Forest Service and Interior Department officials warned senators Thursday that the upcoming wildfire season would be worse than last year’s, which left dozens of people dead in California, saying that “if we’re lucky, this year will simply be a challenging one.”
“It’s hard to imagine a repeat of this experience, but this is the potential reality that we face again this year,” said Jeff Rupert, director of the Office of Wildland Fire for the Interior Department, during his opening remarks at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. “So it’s difficult for me to sit here this morning and say that a challenging year is ahead of us because the wildfires that we’re now experiencing are consistently more destructive than they’ve ever been.”
Rupert went on to recount some of harsh statistics from the end of last year’s season which ravaged parts of the west. Eighty-five people died from November’s Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history. The fire virtually burned the town of Paradise to the ground, destroying thousands of homes and structures, and has cost billions of dollars in economic losses.
Rupert and Shawna Legarza, the director of fire aviation and management for the US Forest Service, spoke before the committee about how the federal government and Congress plan to manage potential threats from the upcoming wildfire season.
“We know that our predictive services is showing that it’s going to start to increase, that we could have a very significant fire year again,” Legarza said during her opening statement. “This year in California and the Pacific Northwest, all those grasses are going to be drying out from the heavy rains and snowpack, and with that will come large fires. So we must continue to be prepared.”
Both the Interior Department and US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service provide government assistance during wildfire season.
Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said the upcoming wildfire season will have “elevated wildfire activity,” from June through September, according to a National Interagency Fire Center monthly wildland fire potential outlook released in early June.
“Some observers believe the stage is set for fire activity similar to the indescribable damage and staggering loss of life that we saw last year in Northern California,” Murkowski said during her opening remarks.
Murkowski noted that there has been an uptick in wildfires across the country in the last week alone. She mentioned wildfires that have already started in her home state, Alaska, as well as parts of Arizona.
The senator cited some reasons for the uptick in wildfires over the past few years, including climate change, unhealthy landscapes that are overstocked with “excess fuels” and disease and insect outbreaks which leave trees behind that are “ready to ignite just like a matchstick,” she said.
Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the ranking member of the committee, said wildfires are “burning longer” and “they are harder to control than just a few years ago.”