Update, 9/8: The U.S. House agreed to Senate amendments to the disaster aid package, and it now heads to President Trump for a signature.
The U.S. Senate passed legislation Thursday that ensures the Forest Service and other federal agencies can pay for fighting wildfires through the 2017 season.
That language was included in a bill amended to provide $7.85 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund following severe flooding in Texas due to Hurricane Harvey.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley had discussed adding wildfire aid to the disaster relief package with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who relayed that message to President Trump in efforts to make a deal over the funding package, Merkley said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
Oregon’s House delegation had also requested that any disaster aid package approved by President Trump include a provision securing funds for fighting wildfires in Oregon and throughout the West.
The approved wildfire fighting provision allows for payments to cover additional firefighting costs that go over agency budgets. That amount is estimated at at least $300 million, according to Merkley’s staff.
Thursday’s vote to approve the package and temporarily raise the nation’s debt ceiling was bipartisan, with 80 senators of both parties voting for the aid package, though 17 Republican senators voted against it.
Dozens of wildfires are burning across Oregon and the West, scorching hundreds of thousands of acres and blanketing towns and cities with ash.
The Chetco Bar fire, the largest in Oregon, has burnt more than 160,000 acres in the state’s southwest corner. The Eagle Creek fire, east of Portland, has torched scenic areas in the Columbia River gorge and caused evacuations close to the metro area.
Both fires are at 5 percent containment levels and expected to continue burning for days, if not weeks.
Though Congress is making progress on providing immediate wildfire relief assistance, members of Oregon’s delegation are calling on lawmakers at the nation’s capital to reform how the federal government manages forests and pays for firefighting.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the lone Republican in Oregon’s delegation, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden separately called on Congress to pass legislation changing policy to provide more stable funding sources for wildfire suppression efforts.
Merkley joined those calls in a speech from the Senate floor Thursday.
“It’s getting worse each year,” Merkley said.
Wyden released a statement Thursday praising Congress for moving forward on the relief package. But he said more must be done.
“These fires are getting hotter, bigger and tougher to fight,” Wyden said. “Congress needs to step up and treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are.”