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Western senators launch push to tap FEMA funds for wildfire disaster recovery

A wildfire from a distant mountain burns over a vineyard in Kenwood, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
A wildfire from a distant mountain burns over a vineyard in Kenwood, Calif., Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

A bipartisan group of western senators introduced legislation today to allow states affected by catastrophic wildfires to tap into federal disaster mitigation assistance to help them recover. That assistance now goes to recovery efforts for other types of disasters, from hurricanes to floods, for which there’s been a presidential designation of a major disaster. But wildfires seldom receive those disaster designations. The bill, proposed by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jon Tester, D-Mont.; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; would let wildfire-stricken states apply for those funds anyway to help communities recover and to prevent future wildfires.

“Throughout the American West, we have felt firsthand the devastation wildfires have on our habitat, our health and our way of life,” Crapo said in a statement. “The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act would allow fire-prone communities to apply for Hazard Mitigation grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to undertake ‘fire-wise’ projects for homes in the wildland urban interface or to reduce hazardous fuels. Congress must continue to pursue efforts aimed at reducing the risk and severity of wildfires, as well as improve the response, prevention and mitigation efforts.”

The new bill is separate from legislation already introduced by the same senators, and companion legislation in the House, to change the nation’s wildfire funding system and end so-called “fire borrowing,” in which federal lands agencies borrow from fire-prevention accounts when firefighting bills mount. Those bills are rapidly taking over their budgets, in a vicious circle that’s also leading to less preventive work at a time of more and worse fires.

Western lawmakers, including Crapo, Risch and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, reintroduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 in September, seeking to tap into disaster funds for firefighting when the bills mount, rather than borrow from prevention programs. They counted it as a promising sign last week when the Trump Administration’s Office of Management and Budget recommended replacing the more than $570 million in fire borrowing that’s anticipated due to this year’s intense fire season with emergency funds, as part of a $12.7 billion disaster funding bill in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

The new bill would go beyond the fire-borrowing fix to also extend hazard mitigation programs to wildfire recovery.

“Massive wildfires destroy homes, businesses and ecosystems in the West just like catastrophic hurricanes destroy communities in coastal regions,” Risch said. “This bill will help local governments in Idaho and across the west deal with the aftermath of large wildfires.”

Asked if the senators have gotten pushback from senators from hurricane-, tornado- and flood-prone states concerned about others tapping into the same disaster funds they’re counting on, Lindsay Nothern, communications director for Crapo, said, “Not officially.”

“There was concern earlier, when we first introduced the fire borrowing bill,” he said, “will this legislation take money away from our hurricane money or our tornado money, and the answer is no, because it’s disaster funding.” Nothern said as envisioned, the bill wouldn’t reduce the amount of money available for other disasters. Instead, “More would be appropriated and more would be spent.”

Groups that have lined up in support of the new bill so far include the National Association of Counties, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the U.S. Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers.




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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