Op-ed by American Forests CEO Scott Steen as originally published on The Hill’s Congress Blog

This year’s wildfire season has set records for being one of the most catastrophic. If it is setting a precedent for what is to come, we’re all in trouble.

Texas is having the worst fire season on record. Since last November, more than 7,600 homes and other buildings and more than 3.8 million acres have been destroyed, which is half a million more acres than burned total in the U.S. last year. And Texans aren’t alone in their suffering, as 2011 has seen almost 8.4 million acres burn across the U.S. Over the past 20 years, the area in the West seared by fire has been six times greater than in the two preceding decades.

Now is the time, with the end of wildfire season within sight and with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees submitting their FY12 recommendations last week, to focus on how devastation like this can be avoided in the future. These fires have national economic consequences and to prevent wildfires, we as a nation must invest in forest health and in strategies to decrease the risk of future fires. We need a comprehensive approach to managing forests, including sufficiently funding all aspects of wildfires: firefighting and preventative measures.

First, Congress must approve the recommended $413 million for funding of the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act. This act sets aside specific funds for directly fighting fires — from the wages of the firefighters to the cost of planes and equipment. Every year since 2000, firefighting expenses have exceeded $1 billion a year, so FLAME’s budget is essential to protecting our homes and communities. Even the best fire prevention plans are not going to make wildfires go away overnight.

Next, $110 million is needed for State Fire Assistance, which is partially funded through the Forest Service’s wildfire accounts and partially through their cooperative programs with states. This federal program helps communities prepare Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs) to reduce hazardous fuels and other wildfire threats in their local communities. Removing hazardous fuels is a key component of fire prevention. The greater the fuel load, the more intense the fire. Through CWPPs, communities are able to identify sites and methods for fuel reduction to protect their most at-risk areas, expediting federal aid to these areas. Federal support of CWPPs ensures consistency across county lines and within forests. By funding fire prevention, the budgetary needs for firefighting will decrease in the coming years, saving Americans millions of dollars.

Science has proven that fires can be a normal, healthy part of forest ecosystems — returning nutrients to the soil and removing disease-ridden plants and harmful insects. But too many years of suppression and hands-off management have made our public lands overgrown, leading to hotter, larger and more destructive fires.

Wildfires cost lives, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to property, crops and livestock, not to mention the destruction of wildlife and ecosystems. We can no longer simply react to the problem, but must work harder to prevent it. And to do that, Congress needs to monetarily support both firefighting and fire prevention efforts.

Scott Steen is CEO of American Forests, the nation’s only nonprofit devoted exclusively to the preservation and restoration of America’s urban and rural forests.