LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KTHV) - Smokey the Bear always said “only you can prevent forest fires,” but amid historic disasters and climate change, the debate over what the government should do is getting heated.
“It's just a tragic situation and unfortunately we're seeing it all too often,” said Rep. Bruce Westerman (R – Arkansas), the only member of Congress with a forestry degree to fall back on for a career. “It's past time to squabble over politics on this and to do real policy.”
Westerman sponsored bills that put more money into forest management to try and make wildfires less deadly. He points to this month’s Camp Fire in northern California as a situation where Arkansas could help the Golden State, despite the considerable climate difference between the two states.
“Prescribed fire and thinning is necessary to protect our forest from wildfire,” said Joe Fox, the Arkansas state forester and chair of the Forestry Commission. “It also protects those structures we have like cabins, homes, barns also and it makes it safer for the wildland firefighters who are out there.”
President Trump entered the debate by calling out California's fire strategies. The argument got harder when he talked about a conversation with the leader of Finland and how that Scandinavian country does a better job of “raking” the forest. Westerman said don't take the president literally.
“Rake is not the word I would have used but what he I think means by that is we need to get more fuel off the forest floor,” he said.
“Our agency are the guys and gals that rake the forest, but our rake is a drip torch,” Fox said of the device used to begin prescribed and controlled fires. “That’s what we use to clear it out. We would need a whole lot of rakes if we really did it that way.”
Opposition to Westerman's bills, he said, has come from environmentalists who fear timber companies will look to clear-cut land, but the efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change could be the key to bringing both sides together.
“The science is on our side,” said Westerman. “It all comes back to putting sound scientific principles to practice to managing the forest and while we're doing that we can protect life and property.”
Two of Westerman's bills have made it out of the House only to get stuck in the Senate. He has a proposal in the current Farm Bill that could help it clear those hurdles in the lame duck session.