In the wake of historic wildfires in Oregon, Idaho, California, Washington and across the West, several U.S. senators from throughout the region introduced an updated version of their bipartisan wildfire funding solution that would protect funding needed for fire prevention and treat wildfires as the natural disasters they are.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, offered by Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Idaho; Orrin Hatch, Utah; and Cory Gardner, Colorado; and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden, Oregon; Dianne Feinstein, California; Maria Cantwell, Washington; Jeff Merkley, Oregon; and Michael Bennett, Colorado, seeks to end the cycle of borrowing from fire prevention accounts to put out fires and stop the erosion of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget by reforming the way the federal government funds wildfires.
“If you live in a community in the western United States, you do not need to be told that wildfires are major natural disasters,” Crapo said, in a news release. “With over eight million acres burned, 10 states choked with smoke, and lives and structures lost, this year’s fire season is a brutal reminder that we must start treating mega fires as the disasters that they are. Now is the time to both recognize that fires are major disasters and end the destructive cycle of fire borrowing that only makes the fire situation in this country worse.”
As of last week, wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year exceeded $2 billion, making it the most expensive year on record, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The West is on fire, and it’s burning faster than years prior,” Risch said. “We need every resource available to prevent and combat the devastation caused by wildfires. This legislation would ensure those of us in the West can count on much-needed disaster funding.”
Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling 10-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat. Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the 10-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, chewing up a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. The agency has had to borrow from prevention programs to cover fire suppression costs.
USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue spoke Wednesday to the National Association of State Foresters and urged them to call on Congress to support the senators’ efforts to correct the situation.
“I want to implore you to leave this meeting and just write a note to your Congressional delegation saying, ‘Please support the permanent fire funding fix so the U.S. Forest Service can manage its forests in a way to get ahead of these forest fires,’” Perdue said.
The updated bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would put a freeze on the rising budget costs of the 10-year average. It would end “fire borrowing” by allowing the agencies to fund any fire suppression spending needed above the frozen average through disaster funding just like other agencies can access disaster funding for tornadoes, hurricanes and floods.