Western lawmakers: Wildfire funding fix needs to be top priority

WASHINGTON – In the wake of historic wildfires in Oregon, Idaho, California, Washington and across the West, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., have introduced an updated version of their bipartisan wildfire funding solution that would protect desperately needed funding for fire prevention and treat wildfires as the natural disasters they are.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 would end the destructive cycle of borrowing from fire prevention accounts to put out fires and stop the erosion of the Forest Service’s budget by reforming the way the federal government funds wildfires.

“Oregonians and westerners are battling another record-breaking fire year. The threat of catastrophic wildfires is growing, yet the federal government continues to conduct ‘business as usual’ when it comes to fighting fires in Oregon and the West,” Wyden said. “More communities are put in danger and fire prevention work gets left undone because of a backwards fire budgeting system. It’s past time for Congress to make it a top priority to end fire borrowing, stop the erosion of the Forest Service becoming the ‘Fire Service’ and start treating wildfires like the natural disasters they are.”

“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. “With over eight million acres burned, ten 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.”

“The way we fund wildfire suppression today is counterproductive and crazy,” said Merkley. “As this fire season has proven all too vividly, robbing from forest health and fire prevention programs to pay for suppression only creates a vicious cycle of bigger and bigger fires. It’s time to fix this problem once and for all by funding fighting the biggest wildfires the way we do other natural disasters.”

Unlike for other natural disasters, where agencies can draw from an emergency fund to pay for disaster response, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department do not have access to disaster funds and are forced to “fire borrow” – or steal money from fire prevention and other important programs already funded in their agencies to pay to put out fires.

Currently, federal agencies calculate wildfire suppression budgets based on the average costs of wildfire suppression over the past 10 years. But as fire seasons grow longer and wildfires have become more expensive to fight, Congress is forced to appropriate more funding to an outdated budgeting system that almost always underestimates the actual cost of fighting fires.

The updated bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would fund wildfires as natural disasters and protect the agencies’ fire prevention budgets by putting 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.

Making disaster funding available after the appropriated fire suppression funds are spent would allow the Forest Service to use its fire prevention funding for its intended purpose – completing hazardous fuels reduction projects that have been shown to help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last week that this year has been the single most expensive fire year on record, with fire suppression activities totaling more than $2 billion. Addressing the current, problematic system of wildfire funding is part of a larger need to stabilize and update emergency spending for all natural disasters.

Earlier this month, Wyden and Crapo, along with 10 other Democratic and Republican senators urged Senate Leaders Mitch McConnell and Charles E. Schumer to include a wildfire funding fix in any future disaster aid legislation that passes through Congress.

Find bill text for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act here.

Feinstein: “Wildfires have already burned millions of acres this year across the West, and the fire season is far from over. It’s long past time we treat wildfires like other natural disasters and allow federal agencies to pay for them like other natural disasters. Our bipartisan bill would end the need for so-called ‘fire borrowing,’ where funding for fire prevention efforts is diverted to fighting wildfires, delaying or canceling critical prevention work. We must empower federal agencies with the tools they need to protect public safety and get ahead of what could be yet another catastrophic fire year.”

Risch: “The West is on fire, and it’s burning faster than years prior. 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.”

Cantwell: “Fifty percent more acres have already burned this year than normal and the trends of the last few years suggest this will likely be our new normal. The bill we are introducing today will stop the fire-borrowing that is currently crippling the Forest Service.”

Hatch: “Wildfires continue to decimate Western communities, ruining sources of drinking water, destroying property, and even claiming lives. Wildfires have all the qualities of a natural disaster, and it’s time that the federal government treat them as such. This critical legislation gives much-needed relief to the Forest Service by putting an end to funding requirements that make it all but impossible for the agency to bear the increased costs of wildfire suppression. Ultimately, our bipartisan proposal will leave the Forest Service better prepared to fight forest fires and better equipped to prevent them from happening in the first place. It is imperative that we to return to a more balanced approach to forest management, not just fire management. I am confident that this bill will help foster safer, healthier forests in Utah and across the West for years to come.”

Gardner: “It may not be getting headlines in the national news, but wildfires have burned millions of acres in the West this year and the communities impacted in Colorado need assistance. I’ve been working to advance this legislation to stop fire borrowing for several years, and I appreciate the strong bipartisan support to ensure the Forest Service has the funds it needs for clean-up and prevention efforts while also finally requiring the government to treat wildfires like it does other natural disasters.”

Bennet: “Catastrophic wildfires continue to plague the West, not only threatening communities and livelihoods but also draining the Forest Service budget. We need to restructure the way we pay for fighting catastrophic fires to mitigate and prevent future wildfires. This bill would end the practice of fire borrowing—a necessary step that will enable the Forest Service to make responsible investments on the front end to restore our forests and safeguard our watersheds.”