By Tyler Hoguet
This week was a busy one for state foresters on Capitol Hill. George Geissler, Laura McCarthy, and Thom Porter all appeared (virtually) before members of Congress this week to discuss the difficulties of fighting wildfire during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Washington State Forester George Geissler’s testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday focused predominantly on the significant role state forestry agencies play in wildfire management and how protocols for suppression operations have changed to better protect firefighters and the public from COVID outbreaks. “We must not jeopardize safety in attempts to lower COVID risk,” he told the lawmakers. “If (a policy) exchanges one risk for another, we must figure out better protocols.”
In his opening statement, Geissler urged the committee to support aggressive initial attack of wildfires in their districts: “We know that rapid detection and initial attack to keep fires small is the best way to minimize the number of personnel assigned to a specific fire.” He also articulated the need for expanded support for state and local firefighters through the State and Volunteer Fire Assistance (SFA/VFA) programs.
In her testimony before Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee this Wednesday, New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy said that the “coronavirus has a cascading impact on wildfire operations,” from testing and tracking COVID cases, to moving to an online work environment, to social distancing firefighters in the middle of the fire season. McCarthy also voiced her support for increased SFA/VFA funding: any reduction in federal support for SFA/SVA, she said, “is going to be immediately felt in New Mexico’s rural communities.”
In the same Wednesday forum, California State Forester Thom Porter weighed in on how the public can help prevent wildfires and mitigate wildfire damages during the pandemic. “The public is our most important ally in this… We are working with all residents of California to ensure they have defensible space maintained and ready to go this year.”
Tyler Hoguet is NASF’s 2020 Summer James Hubbard Intern for Policy and Communications. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.