Will We Be Unprepared For Another Fire Season?

By Congressman Curt Weldon

In 2000, more than 8 million acres of pristine wilderness burned and federal agencies expended more than $1.3 billion in fire suppression costs. Last year, in 2002, wildfires scorched more than 7 million acres. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and firefighters gave their lives.

The National Interagency Coordination Center predicts that 2003 will be another above-normal fire season for many areas of the United States. Further, the 2003 forecast is for above-normal temperatures and below-normal precipitation.

Wildfire has become as deadly and destructive as any force encountered by the United States in our history. Billions of dollars worth of almost irreplaceable old-growth forest land has been destroyed, hundreds of homes have burned, and most tragically, dozens have lost their lives fighting wildfires in just the last few years. Every effort must be made to detect and combat forest fires early before they grow into the monsters that destroy so much of our national heritage.

As a former fire chief, founder of the Congressional Fire Services Institute, and a founding Member of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus, I know from first-hand experience that real-time detection of fires in their infancy can have an enormous impact in helping our firefighting and evacuation efforts. Continuous detection and reporting of fires over the U.S. from space would be invaluable in improving response and increasing effectiveness of wildland fire suppression operations.

Satellite-based technology is available today to help firefighters. The federal government, with the help of Congress in 1997, developed the Hazard Support System to fuse data from satellites and other sources for detection of wildland fires before they grow to an acre in size. This capability – recently moved to the new Department of Homeland Security and renamed FIRESAT – leverages existing Department of Defense and civil weather satellites to provide near-real-time satellite data to firefighters. The system however, has not been fielded operationally due to budget constraints. For the lack of a few million dollars a year to operate the system, the U.S. Government expended billions of dollars fighting wildfire and providing emergency relief during the past few years. We must not squander the current opportunity to have the system on-line by August with all the necessary activation and security costs for a mere $7.5 million.

The Army Space Command was called in last year to provide some of the capability available in the FIRESAT System, but only after the inferno was already raging out of control. I am convinced that the FIRESAT System would have contributed enormously to this effort with early detection and additional real-time data, had it been operational. In fact, FIRESAT could have provided real-time, continuous satellite-based fire data over the entire United States.

We cannot continue to be penny-wise and pound foolish. It would be a tragedy if another devastating fire season was permitted to descend upon our country without activating all of the resources and capabilities we have to counter the destructive potential of wildfire because we are unwilling to expend the reasonable resources to prevent billions in losses. Therefore, we must support and demand the immediate activation of the FIRESAT System because we cannot and should not risk loss of life and property because we failed to act.

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