WASHINGTON (AP) — As wildfires choke California and other Western states, the Trump administration pledged Thursday to work more closely with state and local officials to prevent wildfires from ever starting.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the Forest Service and other agencies will step up efforts to cut down small trees and underbrush and set controlled fires to remove trees that serve as fuel for catastrophic blazes, including a series of deadly fires that have spread through drought-parched forests and rural communities in California.
Six firefighters have died in those wildfires.
Perdue, who toured the California fires this week, said they were "stark reminders of the immense forest-fire health crisis in this country, and the urgent need to dramatically increase our preventative forest treatments."
While officials have boosted forest management efforts in recent years, more needs to be done, Perdue said.
"To truly protect our forests, we must increase the number and the size of our (prevention) projects across the local landscape and across boundaries, and frankly we can't do this by ourselves," Perdue said at a news conference at the Capitol.
Perdue pledged a "shared stewardship" approach in which the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies work with state, local and tribal officials to fight and prevent wildfires.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, meanwhile, said national forests have suffered from "gross mismanagement" for decades.
"The fuel loads are up. The density of our forests is historical. We have dead and dying timber," Zinke said at a Cabinet meeting at the White House.
"This is unacceptable that year after year we're watching our forests burn, our habitat destroyed and our communities devastated," Zinke added. "And it is absolutely preventable. Public lands are for everybody to enjoy and not just held hostage by these special-interest groups."
Zinke has long complained that environmental "extremists" make it difficult for trees to be logged to reduce fire risk.
"Whether you're a global warmist advocate or denier, it doesn't make a difference when you have rotting timber, when housing prices are going up ... yet we are wasting billions of board feet" of timber that could go to local lumber mills, he said.
The focus on wildfire comes as California and other states face longer and more destructive wildfire seasons because of drought, warmer weather attributed to climate change and homes built deeper into forests.
Yosemite National Park's scenic valley in Northern California reopened Tuesday after a 20-day, smoked-forced closure, and hundreds of people were evacuated from Glacier National Park in Montana after a wildfire destroyed at least nine homes and cabins in one of the park's historic districts.
In Washington state, meanwhile, officials have distributed masks to combat unhealthy air filled with smoke from wildfires that have blanketed the Northwest.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the current crisis underscores the importance of preventing wildfires. "It is unacceptable to me to have Northwest seniors and young people being afraid to open their doors in the morning because they are afraid of smoke," he said.
Longer and hotter wildfire seasons are the "new normal," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., "and we have to meet it with a very, very aggressive response" that includes drones, satellites and other technology.
Not all efforts will be popular, Cantwell said, noting that some Seattle-area residents opposed controlled burns this spring because they feared the smoke.
"I guarantee you now, Seattle would definitely take a little bit of smoke instead of the eventual, all-summer-long smoke that we're getting," she said.
Perdue and other officials said the focus on prevention could save money, noting that federal wildfire costs approached a record $3 billion last year. "There's no quick fix," Perdue said, but increased collaboration could eventually save money or at least "get more done with the same costs."
Congress earlier this year created a wildfire disaster fund to help combat increasingly severe wildfires. The law sets aside more than $20 billion over eight years to allow the Forest Service and other federal agencies to end a practice of raiding non-fire-related accounts to cover wildfire costs.
The plan takes effect in October 2019.