Senate Committee Passes Merkley-Backed Fix to End “Fire-Borrowing” that Raids Wildfire Prevention Funds

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley announced that the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has passed legislation that includes a provision fought for by Merkley to finally end the practice of “fire-borrowing” and allow wildfire-fighting efforts to use natural disaster emergency funds during the worst fire years.

Currently, wildfires are funded unlike any other natural disaster. Even when exceptionally large and devastating wildfires occur, the cost of fighting them is not covered at all by emergency disaster funds.

As a result, in bad fire years, agencies must cut from critical programs to pay for the full costs of fighting fires. This creates a vicious cycle in which fire prevention funds are robbed to pay for fires that are already burning, which in turn makes future fire seasons even worse and further increases the disparity between planned wildfire funding and the actual cost of fighting fires.

The provision passed by the Committee today would change that.

“When a huge hurricane or a tornado strikes, we fund the response and recovery as exactly what it is – a natural disaster,” says Merkley. “But despite the fact that the largest wildfires are natural disasters, we’ve forced agencies to steal funding from other critical programs – including wildfire prevention – to cover the cost of fighting them. I’m glad that today the Senate Appropriations Committee recognized it’s time to end that vicious cycle, stop raiding fire prevention, and finally treat the most devastating fires as the natural disasters they are.”

Specifically, the provision Merkley fought to include in the FY2016 Interior Appropriations bill, which was passed today by the full Appropriations Committee, would budget upfront 100% of the 10-year average of firefighting costs. It would then ensure that any firefighting funds needed beyond what has been budgeted would come out of FEMA’s emergency natural disaster fund instead of raiding from other programs.

This provision was inspired by a bill developed by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Crapo (R-ID) and cosponsored by Senator Merkley that would have eliminated fire borrowing in a similar fashion

If passed into law, the provision would go into effect next year.

The 2014 fire season cost Oregon $280 million and charred 847,000 acres. As record drought continues across the West, more severe fire seasons are expected in 2015 and beyond.

Merkley and many other Democrats voted against the broader bill today due to concerns over unrelated, extreme anti-environmental policy riders included in the overall package, but Merkley expressed optimism that the wildfire funding fix would be able to rise above politics and be included in whatever final funding bill is agreed on by both parties.

“As we face down another extreme fire season in the West, this is a bipartisan, common-sense fix to make sure we aren’t robbing fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning,” Merkley said.