Western senators are joining forces in an attempt to change how Congress finances wildfire fights.
When areas of the country are hit with natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, they can access emergency federal funding. But when huge wildfires rage on federal land, the U.S. Forest Service has to shift money from other areas of its budget to meet the challenge.
The practice, called “fire-borrowing,” depletes the accounts needed to prevent fires, setting up a burn-and-response cycle that makes it difficult to get ahead of the problem.
The past two summers of intense, widespread fires have highlighted the dilemma.
More than 1 million acres burned in Washington state last summer, and the previous summer featured the largest blaze in the state’s history.
In 2014, the U.S. Forest Service spent 42 percent of its budget fighting fires. Twenty years before that, it was 16 percent. In 2015, the Forest Service shifted $700 million to fire suppression, which drained accounts needed to make the forests healthier and less susceptible to fires.
In short, the budget desperately needs defensible space.
Forest managers are worried that climate change and the maintenance backlog have created a new reality, in which wildfires become more frequent and more intense. Last fall, the U.S. Agriculture Department reported that 65 million acres of federal land still needed restoration work, but the Forest Service was “severely constrained” by the current funding system.
Two members of the Senate Energy Committee, Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the committee chair, have been working on legislation for the past few years, and now they’re being joined by Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, both Idaho Republicans, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.
At a news conference Monday in Boise, Risch, Crapo and Wyden noted that only 1 percent of wildfires turn catastrophic but these big fires burn through 30 percent of the Forest Service’s firefighting budget.
The problem has been persuading politicians elsewhere that Western wildfires are tantamount to the natural disasters they face. They don’t seem to realize that federal lands cover about 60 percent of Idaho and 30 percent of Washington state.
But in a political coup, they’ve persuaded Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to sign up. Sen. Wyden explained that increased firefighting has hurt efforts in New York state to stymie infestations of ash beetles, which are killing trees needed for New York’s baseball bat industry.
“We’ve got some new allies,” Wyden said. “They don’t want the Forest Service to become the Fire Service, and that’s where we’re headed at this point.”
Hopefully, more members of Congress will go to bat for the Forest Service by allowing it to tap emergency funds outside its budget for natural disasters.
This, in turn, would leave the agency with more money to prevent fires in the first place and to restore forest health.
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