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Local fires garner national political attention

Interior secretary visits while pushing for changes in funding


Dept. of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell talks about the North Star and Tunk Block fires as "indicative of what we're seeing" in the parched West with long, hot fire seasons, as firefighters from the Mount Tolman Fire Center look on. - Scott Hunter photo

"Rehab" is beginning even as firefighters have a tough time on the eastern edge of the massive North Star fire, where Interior Dept. Secretary Sally Jewell appeared Monday to visit state and tribal leaders during a push to educate Congress on a need for a different funding model for such fires.

The scale of the fires that have burned across about 20 percent of the Colville Indian Reservation made a good backdrop for Jewell to make her case that fighting such catastrophic fires ought to be funded like other huge emergencies such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

Instead, agencies that would apply funds to preventative programs like strategic thinning have been spending those funds fighting bigger fires in longer, hotter fire seasons.

The North Star and Tunk Block fires have burned more than 372,000 acres.

"It's as big as it is largely because we had a lot of fire burning across the country at the same time," Jewell noted in front of a big map of the fires at the incident command center at the Omak Stampede grounds.

A total of 30,000 personnel were fighting the West's fires at their peak, including military personnel and firefighters from New Zealand and Australia.

"We had hundreds of resource orders that went unfilled until very recently," said Washington Dept. of Natural Resources Commissioner Peter Goldmark. "We were tapped out here in the Western U.S."

Jewell said 9 million acres have burned, 5 million in Alaska alone, putting the season in the top six worst since accurate record keeping started in the 1960s. Federal agencies are spending an average of $10 million a day to fight fires in the Pacific Northwest alone.

"We're not sensible in the federal government on how we budget for fire," Jewel said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has its hands tied in dealing with wildland fire, unable to use funding tools available in other natural disasters.

Members of Congress not from areas susceptible to fire don't understand the need, she said, so she and others have been talking to members to educate them.

"Your voices are important in Congress," added FEMA's Region X Administrator Kenneth Murphy, who said he has issued 11 fire management assistance grants in Washington this year. But people living in the East don't understand the importance of controlling fire in places like the reservation, where a quarter of the Colville Tribe's income comes from the forests.

After the meeting, tribal Chairman Jim Boyd was on his way to catch a flight to Washington, D.C. ,to add the voice of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation to the national conversation.

Reports from fires Tuesday indicated that steep rocky slopes along Highway 21 are making it difficult for firefighters to construct containment lines there, but elsewhere repair of damage caused during suppression activities is already starting and a Burned Area Emergency Recovery team will start to assess damage caused by the Tunk Block fire in the next few days.

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