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Our View: Feds should pay cost of fighting fires

Here's a good way to either bankrupt counties such as ours or to let wildfires burn out of control: make local fire departments pay the cost of putting out wildfires on federal lands.

Last week, a federal oversight agency recommended shifting those firefighting costs from Washington to local communities. The goal of the Government Accountability Office committee is to reduce the ever-rising cost of battling wildfires – which this decade has averaged $580 million a year. This shift theoretically would force local governments to require fire-resistant building and zoning practices.

Such building and zoning codes may be a worthy goal. But shifting the burden of fighting forest fires to local communities still is a lousy idea.

The building and zoning codes really won't do much to stop wildfires in many counties. Consider our own, where federal land takes up a wide swath of the central and eastern sections with only small pockets of privately-owned land amid it. Given that most forest fires are caused either by lightning during dry seasons or people visiting the forested areas, the building/zoning codes won't make much of a difference.

In any case, if the federal government owns the land, then the federal government ought to pay for taking care of it. While local communities do benefit from tourism at national parks and forests, they also lose the great tax benefit of having those lands in private ownership so that they may be logged or otherwise used commercially. It's one of the reasons many of these counties are budget-strapped.

Further, on most of these forest lands, the federal government restricts its ability to contract out logging so that various endangered or special species – such as the spotted owl, the redwood and the darlingtonia in Del Norte County – will remain protected. We don't disagree with the need to protect these species as they are national treasures. But as national treasures, the cost of protecting them from wildfires ought to be shared nationally.

The best way to reduce wildfire costs ultimately is to spend more now on forestry management. After all, the number and size of forest fires in the years ahead could be dramatically reduced if more thinning and forest health projects occurred.


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