Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lake Isabella Fire Underscores Forest Service Plea for Wildfire Disaster Fund

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Lake Isabella Fire Underscores Forest Service Plea for Wildfire Disaster Fund

Article excerpt

Wildfires destroyed at least 80 homes and threatened an additional 1,500 as flames tore through Central California's rural communities Friday, according to authorities.

The blaze broke out Thursday as temperatures rose to a 90-plus degrees F. dry heat, moving across a number of ridges and burning homes including some northeast of Bakersfield near Lake Isabella. It came just as others across western states were dying down.

The fires again highlighted an ongoing plea from the United States Forest Service to have wildfires classified as "natural disasters" so it can fund its firefighting efforts from federal emergency money instead of its own programs, which are mainly meant for preventing fires. That call took on renewed urgency this week with the news that the drought and a beetle infestation have left millions of dead trees as perfect fuel for wildfire.

"Unless Congress acts now to address how we pay for firefighting, the Forest Service will not have the resources necessary to address the forest die-off and restore our forests," said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, in a statement Wednesday.

The rapid expansion of the Lake Isabella fire underscores how quickly wildfire can become a threat to people and property.

"I've never been in a wildland fire where I've seen so many homes burn," Kern County Fire Capt. Tyler Townsend told the Associated Press. "It's one of the most devastating I've ever seen."

The increasing intensity and frequency of fires, behind the Forest Service's push for more funding, have been attributed to a number of factors. For one, a beetle infestation has killed 66 million trees since 2010, turning portions of the California landscape into a tinder box.

Drought conditions - some experts say are exacerbated by the effects of climate change - as well homebuilding and other development being pushed into the so-called "wildland-urban interface," have added to the budgetary strain.

The Forest Service spent 56 percent of its budget last year on fire management, compared to 16 percent in 1995. The Forest Service said 2015 was the most expensive fire season in its history, costing them more than $2. …

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