Lujan Grisham Opens Hearing On 2015 Fire Season

U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham


WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivered the following opening statement during today’s Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Conservation & Forestry. As the ranking member on the committee, Lujan Grisham kicked off the hearing to review 2015 fire season and long-term trends.  

—As Prepared for Delivery—

“Thank you Mr. Chairman. I really appreciate you calling today’s hearing to review the 2015 fire season and long-term wildfire trends. Although wildfires have occasionally been discussed in Committee hearings, it has been more than 10 years since a wildfire specific hearing has been held. In this time, the cost, size and intensity of fires have been dramatically increasing. This certainly deserves our Committee’s and Congress’s attention and this timely hearing will allow us to discuss ways that we can better help prevent, mitigate and fight wildfires. 

“This year’s wildfire season has devastated much of the western United States. Many members on this Committee have either experienced devastation caused by wildfires in their state or district this year, have experienced it in the past, or know that it might just be a matter of time before wildfires impact their constituents.

“This fire season has resulted in the Forest Service spending $1.7 billion fighting fires. We’ve seen more than 9 million acres burned, thousands of homes destroyed and 13 firefighters have lost their lives in the line of duty since July. 

“While I’m thankful New Mexico avoided any big fires this year, I know firsthand how devastating fires can be. For three years in a row, New Mexico endured some of the biggest fires the state has ever seen. The Whitewater-Baldy Complex, Las Conchas and the Gila fires devastated our land, resources and communities.

“In this last fiscal year, FY15, the Forest Service spent $700 million more than what Congress initially appropriated and as a result the agency had to transfer funds from non-fire programs to support the immediate, emergency needs of fire suppression. I was happy to see that the Forest Service’s $700 million supplemental appropriation request was included in the CR that passed last week.

“Unfortunately, this is becoming the norm and not the exception. Since 2004, the Forest Service has needed eight supplemental appropriations. This “fire borrowing” trend has been terribly disruptive to the Forest Service’s ability to carry out its Congressional mandated mission. 

“Just this fire season, the Southwestern Region, which includes New Mexico and Arizona, lost more than $15 million dollars to fire borrowing. This affected several important projects in New Mexico and put on hold the Santa Fe National Forest’s Moya-Oso project, which is a Wildland-Urban Interface fuels reduction project, the El Medio Forest Renewal project, which is a thinning project that would have harvested 315 acres in the Carson National Forest and the Riparian Restoration at Three Pueblos project, which is a forest restoration collaboration project among the Pueblos of Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara and Nambe. Unfortunately, these types of projects that were put on hold are the ones that would help prevent future wildfires. 

“To make matters worse, “fire borrowing” is only part of the problem. The rising 10-year suppression cost average for wildfires means less funding is going to non-fire Forest Service employees and programs each year. 

“Because of this, the Forest Service now has fewer resources for recreation, research and development, and road maintenance. There are also fewer resources to carry out NEPA analysis, timber contracts, timber salvage, controlled burns and other Forest Service management activities. 

“A number of factors contribute to the increase in size and intensity of wildfires, including drought, climate change and poorly managed forests. But the Forest Service currently lacks the resources necessary to mitigate these factors.

“I am a co-sponsor of H.R. 167, the Wildfire Funding Disaster Act. This is the budget fix that the Forest Service needs. I’m open to discussing how H.R. 167 can fit with other policy proposals to address our forest needs. But, first and foremost, we must fix the wildfire budget so the Forest Service can do the work that everyone on this Committee expects it to do.

“Again, I thank the Chair for holding today’s hearing and look forward to hearing from our witnesses.”