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Thursday, October 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Pacific NW

Congress seeks ways to change wildfire funding as feds shift additional $250M to fight fires

By Kevin Graeler Correspondent

With a vicious fire season forcing federal officials to use up most of the Forest Service’s budget on firefighting, the Obama administration urged Congress this week to treat the blazes like other natural disasters.

The administrators say basic functions and programs – including efforts to prevent wildfires – are endangered by the increasing shift of the agency’s budget to firefighting efforts. This week, the Obama administration transferred an additional $250 million from the Forest Service budget toward the fight of wildfires scorching the West.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., received a joint letter from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and White House Budget Director Shaun Donovan calling for changes in the way the government pays for fighting wildfires.

“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” Jewell, Vilsack and Donovan wrote.

The White House wants the Forest Service and Interior Department to receive additional funds during the most severe fire seasons instead of shifting money from their set budgets, the agencies said in a news release.

One plan that would do that, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has not come up for a vote in either chamber of Congress. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is the lead sponsor of the proposal in the House.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and the rest of Washington’s House delegation support the bill. It has 132 cosponsors in the House and 17 in the Senate.

“We have a compelling case to make,” McMorris Rodgers said last week, insisting the way the nation pays to fight wildfires needs to be an immediate priority for Congress.

Another proposal, also supported by McMorris Rodgers, would create a new disaster fund within the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Resilient Federal Forests Act passed the House in July almost solely with Republican votes.

Some Democrats question whether FEMA has enough money to fight fires and still effectively treat other disasters.

Cantwell supports the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act but is working on a different bill that she hopes could lead to bipartisan compromise. She expects to release that bill in the coming weeks.

“I am engaging my colleagues to act now, before more lives are lost and communities devastated, and I’m working with a bipartisan group of senators to endorse this plan,” Cantwell said Wednesday in a statement. Cantwell was sent the letter from Jewell, Vilsack and Donovan because she is the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also supports a change to funding fighting wildfires. “The last two wildfire seasons have been especially devastating to communities in Washington state, and it’s extremely troubling to think this could be the new normal,” Murray said Wednesday in a statement.

The Forest Service already has exhausted 52 percent of this year’s budget fighting fires, forcing the agency to transfer a total of $700 million out of forest restoration.

As Western lawmakers ponder a resolution, more than 8 1/2 million acres have been burned thus far this fire season and that number continues to rise.

“Unfortunately,” Jewell wrote in the letter, “the season is far from over.”

Kevin Graeler is a student in the University of Missouri’s Washington, D.C., Reporting Program who works as a correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.

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