Western senators say fire-funding fix must be ‘on the next bill’ Congress passes

Western senators, led by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, are launching a full-court press to get a fix for the nation’s wildfire funding system through Congress now, while the nation is still gasping from a record fire season and coping with disasters from Texas to Florida to Puerto Rico.

“We have a crisis occurring now,” Crapo declared Tuesday at a briefing with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and a group of western senators. “We need to come together and say, ‘No more waiting – it needs to be on the next bill.’ ”

That could mean attaching it to a hurricane-relief bill for Puerto Rico, the senators said.

Western lawmakers in the Senate and House are preparing bills, amendments and riders – any vehicle that will carry the fix into law. The idea, which Crapo, Wyden and other western lawmakers have been pushing for years, is to fund catastrophic wildfires like other national disasters, ending so-called “fire borrowing,” in which the U.S. Forest Service borrows from all its other programs – including all those designed to prevent wildfires and make forests more resilient – when the firefighting bills mount.

“It’s really forest management malpractice, in my mind,” Perdue said, telling the senators they’re on the right track. “I’m working as hard as I can within the administration. … Our goal is to work together, between us.”

Crapo has even tucked a fire-borrowing fix into the reauthorization bill for the national flood insurance program, which expires at the end of this year; he has jurisdiction over that as the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Perdue noted that FEMA is strongly objecting to that move, but it’s increasing the pressure for a fix.

“Well, we are still holding that line,” Crapo said, to which Perdue responded, “And I’ll remind ’em of that.”

Bipartisan legislation reintroduced last week in the Senate, dubbed the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, is sponsored by western senators including Crapo, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch and others.

Similar legislation sponsored by Idaho 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson in the House has 65 co-sponsors including Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Idaho 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador.

Labrador also has been pushing the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” which couples the fire-borrowing fix with provisions calling for increased logging, reduced environmental reviews and limits on litigation over timber sales.

But Perdue told the senators, “We’re singularly focused. … It’s your colleagues that you’ve got to keep clean and clear.”

Vicki Christiansen, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said it’s been a tough fire season across the nation, with nearly 28,000 people fighting wildfires at the peak, and more than $2.4 billion spent so far, “making 2017 the most expensive year ever.”

Because of that, she said, the Forest Service is preparing to transfer $500 million to $600 million from its other, nonfire programs to cover the bills. “These will come from programs that support the national forest activities, such as hazardous fuel reduction, timber, reforestation, recreation and watershed and wildlife conservation.”

That, Christiansen said, “creates an ongoing erosion of our agency’s ability to support the nonfire program, the proactive work that is so important.”

Perdue said, “Functionally what that means is we have to hold back our preventive efforts. … We have to hoard the money till we see what the fire situation is going to be through the year. It’s no way to be running the agency.”

In 1995, firefighting costs accounted for just 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget; in 2016, it was 56 percent, and it’s still climbing.

“We’re seeing more large, complex fires,” Christiansen said. And the fire seasons are getting longer and longer; this year, there were 72 days at the highest readiness level, the most in the past five years.

Christiansen said a 2015 study predicted that firefighting would consume two-thirds of the Forest Service’s entire budget by 2025, but that turned out to be a conservative estimate. “Conditions on the ground are worsening,” she said, “and we are projecting the fire budget to consume two-thirds of our overall budget four years sooner, by the year 2021.”

That’s unless  Congress acts to change the wildfire funding system.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, like other measures introduced over the past six years, would allow the Forest Service to tap disaster funds when catastrophic fires exceed budgeted amounts – rather than borrow from prevention programs.

“Transferring these funds to cover the cost of fire suppression is very disruptive to other critical work, including the work to reduce wildfire risk on the front end through prescribed fire, mechanical thinning and other means,” Christiansen said.

Crapo added: “If you live in a community in the western United States, you do not need to be told that wildfires are major natural disasters.”