As wildfires spanning nearly 600,000 acres burn across Oregon – with lightning storms predicted for the next 48 hours – Oregon’s Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden led 10 other senators today in sending a letter to Senate leaders calling for swift passage of President Obama’s emergency supplemental funding request, which would allocate $615 million – accessible immediately – to fight wildfires. The Senators also called for a vote on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill sponsored by Wyden and Merkley that would fix the broken system of stealing funds from prevention to fight fires that are already burning.
Led by Sen. Merkley and Sen. Wyden, the letter was also signed by: Tom Udall (D-NM), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Mark Udall (D-CO), Jon Tester (D-MT), John Walsh (D-MT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), and Michael Bennet (D-CO). It was sent to the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, and the Chair and Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, Barbara Mikulski and Richard Shelby.
With persistent droughts, dry forest conditions and new fires starting daily, the West has experienced a particularly harsh fire season. Currently there are active fires burning in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and California. Both Oregon and Washington have declared states of emergency. The administration already estimates that this year’s funding for firefighting will fall far short of the costs.
“We cannot afford to wait another year to fix this urgent problem,” the Senators wrote in the letter. “We urge you to take up the President’s emergency funding request to deal with wildfire funding once and for all.”
The emergency supplemental funding request would grant $615 million, which would be immediately accessible for firefighting efforts in western states through the end of the year.
The cost of fighting wildfires has regularly exceeded the amount appropriated by Congress in past years. To cover this need for additional funds, money must be redirected from mitigation and prevention efforts.
To ensure that fires are treated like other natural disasters and ensure that both firefighting and prevention efforts are adequately funded, the Senators urged passage of Wyden and Merkley’s bipartisan Wildlife Disaster Funding Act, which would create a long-term solution for wildfire budgets.
Additionally, Sen. Merkley and Sen. Wyden today sent a separate letter to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management requesting that the agencies help Oregon anticipate and prepare for continued fires. In their letter to USFS Chief Tom Tidwell and Neil Korzne, Director of the Bureau of Land Management, the Senators stressed the need for continued monitoring of the fires, given the exceptionally harsh fire season.
“While we understand the need to balance resources not only in areas where there are active fires, but also in areas where fires may occur, Oregon remains at severe risk nationally,” the Senators wrote. “Protracted drought and record low fuel moisture indices exist across much of the State. This presents significant risks to rural communities, forest resources, public health, and wildlife habitat […].”
Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency on July 16th. Over 6,100 firefighters and support personnel have been deployed to contain the fires.
The full text of both letters can be found on the right-hand side of the page.