Our View: Wildfires Deserve Disaster Status

Our View: Wildfires Deserve Disaster Status

23 February 2014

published by http://magicvalley.com

USA — Robbing Peter to pay Paul is no way to govern. And that’s why the West’s federal lawmakers have to win over their peers unaffected by annual wilderness blazes and get the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act passed.

For too long, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of the Interior shifted cash around in order to pay for especially destructive wildfire seasons. Hundreds of millions gets removed from forest management programs — specifically intended to keep wildfires in check — so the necessary resources can get to a wildland inferno. The result is a compounding problem of undermanaged forests, ready to go off with the first lightning strike.

The bill would create an emergency funding line targeted for wildfire suppression. In effect, it would treat wildfires like earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, which annually get special emergency cash through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

It would arm the USDA and the DOI with the tools needed to tackle a raging blaze without having worsen the threat of future fires.

It would treat large wildfires for what they are — disasters. The number of costly fires keeps ballooning each year and the current funding model doesn’t provide what’s necessary.

The legislation, drafted by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has the bipartisan backing of a gaggle of Western lawmakers. The bill’s Senate co-sponsors, who run the political gambit from right to left, from Idaho’s Jim Risch, R, to California’s Diane Feinstein, D, are an indication of the legislation’s regional significance. The broad, but entirely Western, support shows how some important issues can transcend partisan politics. Wyden’s ascension just this month to chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee adds even more legitimate gravitas to the push for its passage.

But the bill’s efficacy is in the numbers and the Congressional Budget Office has yet to issue its analysis, which will carry especially high importance to House conservatives. Co-sponsor Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, told us Thursday that he expects the CBO to determine the legislation would actually be budget neutral, because so much additional cash is already being pumped into the firefighting matrix on bad years.

“As for the political dynamics, I think things look good,” Crapo told the Times-News editorial board, while not making any promises about when the bill could be passed.

The CBO report will make or break this bill. If it somehow pits wildfire funding against cash for other disasters that wreak havoc in other parts of the country, the legislation could be doomed. East Coast lawmakers aren’t about to hand over their hurricane disaster funding. But, by keeping the new funding streams out of FEMA, we’re hopeful the CBO will conclude that this cash won’t compete with any other disaster money. Such a finding would go a long way in getting lawmakers from the humid and wet regions east of the Mississippi River on board.

It’s imperative all of Congress recognize that Western forest fires are indeed disasters that threaten lives and property each and every year. They only need to look at the 19 ad-hoc monuments atop Arizona’s Yarnell Hill, where 19 Hot Shots died last summer, to see the danger of these fires and the need for a better system.

The sooner the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is enacted, the better for the American West.

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