Sen. Ron Wyden pitches catastrophic wildfire legislation to increase fuel reduction and ease financial pinch

Sen. Ron Wyden pitches catastrophic wildfire legislation to increase fuel reduction and ease financial pinch

23 December 2013

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USA — With catastrophic wildfires becoming more common and costly, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, have introduced legislation that would treat big blazes like natural disasters that shouldn’t be funded by federal agencies’ regular budgets.

When major fires happen today and costs soar, federal agencies often have to draw money from other programs such as fire prevention. Legislation from Wyden and Crapo would cap U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department annual firefighting spending and require excess costs to come from elsewhere.

“Congress needs to fund the biggest, most catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are, and free up funding to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts fire management,” Wyden said. “This bill ends that cycle, puts money back into prevention, and provides the resources agencies need to effectively protect rural communities and forests.”

Big blazes are becoming more frequent across the West. Oregon’s 2013 wildfire season was the most severe in more than 50 years, burning 103,000 acres and costing the state $122 million.

Under Wyden’s proposal, the Forest Service and Interior Department would be responsible for paying the first 70 percent of average fire costs. Anything above that would come from emergency accounts. Federal estimates show that 1 percent of fires account for 30 percent of costs. The legislation would shift reimbursements for those expensive infernos, freeing up as much as $412 million for hazardous fuel reduction programs meant to reduce the risk of big blazes.

The measure has support from timber industry, state forestry, recreation and environmental groups, who say it will make spending more predictable on fuel reduction programs such as thinning.

“We need an approach to fire suppression funding which lets the Forest Service manage the forests, instead of constantly moving funding to emergency suppression needs,” said Bill Imbergamo, executive director of the Federal Forest Resources Coalition, a timber industry group.

Environmental groups say the increased spending on fuel reduction will help address changes in forests that have come from decades of fire suppression. Millions of acres of forests in Oregon and elsewhere have grown denser than they were historically, filled with thicker stands of trees that burn more fiercely.

“It is a real change in mindset in terms of how their budget can hit the ground and minimize the impact of big wildfires,” said Mark Stern, director of The Nature Conservancy’s forest conservation program in Oregon.

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