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Paying for wildfire fight needs new tack, Washington congressman says

Kevin Graeler Correspondent

The nation needs to find a better way to pay for fighting fires and stop borrowing from money set aside for forest thinning and rehabilitation, said a Washington congressman whose district is being scorched by fires this summer.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Yakima, became the first member of the state’s delegation to address the issue this week as Congress returns from its summer recess. In a floor speech, he urged the House to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would require using emergency funds to fight fires rather than taking money from the U.S. Forest Service.

The proposal, supported by all 10 Washington representatives, was introduced in January but is still in committee.

For the first time, Newhouse said, the U.S. Forest Service has spent over half of its budget to suppress wildfires and must borrow from other programs, resulting in “a vicious cycle.”

“This leads the next fire season to be worse than the last, a trend we are now experiencing in Washington, which is why it is as important as ever to pass legislation to fix this problem,” Newhouse said.

Newhouse, whose district sustained the two worst fires in state history in consecutive years, spent much of the last month visiting affected communities and emergency personnel in Okanogan County.

During his four-and-a-half-minute speech, he detailed the loss of three firefighters who died Aug. 19 in Twisp, while fighting the fires. The loss of life “is a sober reminder of the dangerous conditions facing many residents,” he said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a bill co-sponsor, agrees. The wildfire legislation would improve the funding system to fight fires and address the underlying issue of forest health. She hopes legislative progress will be made this month.

“This has been a year that we have feared for some time,” McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from Spokane, said Wednesday. “Congress needs to act. This is a top priority.”

An identical version of the bill in the Senate has 17 bipartisan co-sponsors including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch.

Graeler writes from Washington, D.C.
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