Western Wildfire Funding Attached To Hurricane Harvey Relief Bill

Emergency aid to help victims of Hurricane Harvey now also includes additional money to fight wildfires in Oregon and other western states. 

The U.S. Senate on Thursday added provisions replenishing the U.S. Forest Service’s budget for the rest of this fire season. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said it should amount to more than $100 million in additional aid. He said the money will ensure that the agency won’t have to cannibalize programs aimed at making fires less likely to burn in the first place — something he said has frequently happened in the past.

“We steal from fire prevention to pay for fires that are burning,” Merkley said in an interview, “and we also proceed to do things like shut down planning for future timber sales. So it affects everything the forest service does. That will not happen now.”

Merkley and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., both spoke on the Senate floor next to enlarged photos of flames racing through Oregon forests.

“We’re all thinking about Harvey and the impact on Houston … and we’re all worried about Hurricane Irma,” Merkley told his colleagues. “But let us not forget the fires burning all over the United States at an unprecedented rate.”

“My home state is getting pounded by these fires and the West is getting pounded by these fires,” Wyden said. 

The House on Wednesday approved a $7.9 billion aid package for Hurricane Harvey relief, although that is just a small down payment on what will eventually be needed. On Thursday, the Senate increased the disaster relief package to more than $15 billion and sent it back to the House. The Senate also included provisions raising the debt limit and keeping government agencies running until December.

Those added provisions gave western senators an opportunity to add language boosting the Forest Service’s fire-fighting budget. Merkley and Wyden said they’ll once again try this fall to get some kind of permanent fix to the service’s chronic fire fighting shortages. 

As fires have increased in size and intensity, the costs of combating them zoomed from 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015. Lawmakers like Merkley and Wyden have sought to offload the costs of the largest fires to a separate disaster budget, akin to what happens with other major natural disasters.

Attempts to do so, however, have failed, in part because of disputes over logging levels on federal lands.