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Wyden introduces bill to overhaul wildfire funding


Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced their bipartisan bill Thursday to overhaul federal wildfire policy to boost funding for fire prevention and treat the largest wildfires as natural disasters.

“Catastrophic wildfires threaten homes and lives across Oregon and the West year after year, and the money to fight those fires falls short nearly every time,” Wyden said. “The federal government needs to make sure it can invest in fire prevention AND fight these fires. Our bill will ensure agencies have the resources they need to fight fires, end the damaging practice of stealing from fire prevention and treat wildfires as the natural disasters they are.”

“Congress must budget for wildfire suppression in a way that is transparent and properly accounts for the real cost of fighting fires,” Crapo said. “Of all the wildfires each year, one percent of those fires consumes up to 30 percent of annual fire spending, leading to off-the-budget emergency spending measures. These megafires need to be properly accounted for in our annual budget by being treated as the disasters that they are. By properly budgeting for such extreme fire events, we not only fund fire suppression in a fiscally-responsible manner, but also we stop the destructive, cyclical practice of fire borrowing that only exacerbates the problem of over-stocked, unmanaged forests across the West.”

The legislation is cosponsored by Sens. James Risch, R-Idaho, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc.

The bill ends the cycle of underfunding fire suppression accounts. Under an outdated tradition, federal agencies currently base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years, which nearly always underestimates the actual cost of fighting fires. Unlike the response to other natural disasters, which can draw from an emergency fund, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department are forced to steal money from other important programs to make up the difference.

Interior and the Forest Service estimate 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters. This bill would fund those catastrophic fires as natural disasters by making any fire suppression spending above 70% of the 10-year average for fire suppression eligible to be funded under a separate disaster account.

Removing those megafires from the regular budget could free up substantial new funding for fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.

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