Earlier this summer, lightning struck Crow Peak in the Black Hills, setting about 2,700 acres of land on fire before it was contained. The blaze threatened the homes and ranch lands near its path as well as the lives of the firefighters working to fend off its flames.
Over the course of the last decade or so, wildfires across the country have grown larger and more dangerous. In 2015, a record-breaking 10.1 million acres burned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In total, the fires took the lives of at least seven firefighters, severely damaged 4,500 homes, and cost approximately $2.6 billion.
Because of the way funding is allocated, the increased size and scope of fire fighting has drawn much-needed resources away from preventing these blazes altogether. I, along with many members on both sides of the aisle, would like to see this changed. More specifically, I've backed the bipartisan H.R.167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. This legislation would help protect the resources we have to keep our forests healthy, thereby lowering the risk of costly wildfires. The most damaging fires would then be fought with emergency funding, just like other natural disasters are.
In the Black Hills, excessive drought and damaging pine beetles have only amplified the risk of wildfires. Not only is this a significant safety concern, but it also jeopardizes our state’s tourism and forestry industries – and the paychecks of the hundreds of South Dakotans employed in these industries.
A number of counties West River have already become eligible for emergency relief due to excessive drought. Even the small rains some counties have received have simply not been enough to prevent fires or quench dry ranch lands.
Years of pine beetle damage have also turned much of the Black Hills into a tinder box. An estimated 430,000 acres - or about one-third of the Black Hills National Forest - have been destroyed by pine beetles. Through provisions I helped write into the 2014 Farm Bill, we've been able to help cut through environmental red tape, get boots on the ground faster, and allow the Forest Service to work on a larger scale in many cases. So far, nearly one million acres of the Black Hills National Forest has benefited from these provisions, but more must still be done.
Through other efforts, we were also able to prioritize additional funding to help beat the beetle.
Simply put, it is much more cost-effective and significantly safer to prevent a wildfire than it is to fight one. Our funding allocations should reflect that.
We are fortunate to have so many dedicated foresters working in the Black Hills today, fighting to keep our forests healthy, preserving our landscape, and, when necessary, stepping in to protect homes, livestock and lives. I am incredibly grateful for their efforts and humbled by the risks they take.
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