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Idaho senators want wildfire funding to focus on prevention

BOISE – Three Western senators met in fire-ravaged Idaho on Tuesday to announce a push to reform the way the nation funds fire prevention and firefighting.

Idaho’s two Republican senators joined with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden to launch the bipartisan effort, saying they want to use the fall budget negotiations in Congress to introduce “bold reforms.”

“In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden said in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

Fire-prevention funds are regularly tapped to fight raging fires, landing the nation in a vicious circle as it does less prevention, he said.

A new focus on prevention, collaboration and providing firefighters with the best technology could break that cycle, he said.

Wyden hailed firefighters for their heroic efforts but said the nation’s approach to firefighting is a broken system.

“The reality is simple: For Western members of Congress in the House and the Senate, there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this broken system,” he said.

The three senators said there’s “no better time to bring about these changes than this fall,” as Congress grapples with the budget sequester, the need to raise the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year. “Democrats and Republicans from the West want to work with the administration to use this unique time in the budget debate,” Wyden said.

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on which Sen. Jim Risch also serves; Sen. Mike Crapo and Wyden both serve on the budget committee.

Wyden quipped that 3 percent of the U.S. Senate is already on board with the new push – the three of them – and said they’ve also gotten enthusiastic support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been working to make sure the Forest Service is first in line for seven tanker planes that should become available from the military this month to boost firefighting efforts.

The three senators’ announcement came the same day that top federal and state fire managers pushed the nation’s fire preparedness level to its highest level since 2008. That level allows requests for additional military and even international resources.

The nation’s wildfires have changed in the past 25 years, with invasive species, noxious weeds, dry conditions, fuel buildup and increased development altering fire behavior to the point that fires are burning bigger and hotter and threatening more-developed areas. Fire seasons now start earlier and end later, with the result that it’s always fire season somewhere in the nation and no more seasonal respite for the nation’s firefighters.

What’s more, National Interagency Fire Center officials said up to 17 million houses have been built in the last 12 years in the mountains, woods and fields outside of towns. “It’s changing our entire landscape and it’s going to change how we fight fires in the future,” said Dick Bahr, fire science and ecology program leader for the National Park Service. “We don’t have those broad landscapes where fires could burn before without impacting humans.”

All three senators said thinning forests and stepped-up forest management is an important part of wildfire prevention. But the U.S. secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, Tom Vilsack and Sally Jewell, visited the interagency center at the start of this year’s fire season to warn that sequestration-driven cuts would mean tapping into prevention funds to instead pay for firefighting.

Vilsack sent a letter to Wyden on Aug. 1 saying that’s happening now. And that was before the past two weeks of ferocious wildfires in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and California.

Crapo said the automatic, across-the-board cuts of the budget sequester need to be recast into agency flexibility to cut the right things to achieve the same savings, trimming the federal budget the same amount.