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Top 1 percent of wildfires to be funded as natural disasters through FEMA
A bipartisan group of members of Congress at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise pledged Monday to work on behalf of legislation that would change the funding structure for fighting wildfires.
Under legislation currently under consideration in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of the federal firefighting budget, would be treated as natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes, and responses would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This approach has the support of the Obama administration, which included the change in funding in its 2015 budget request.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the legislation he co-introduced in December with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, came out of a meeting last August at the NIFC. Companion legislation, introduced last month by Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is making its way through the House of Representatives.
“We’re all, on a bipartisan basis, committed to making sure that that prevention fund is the front and center of our fire policy,” Wyden said, referring to Monday’s gathering, which included Crapo, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.
Last year, the cost of fighting wildfires went over budget by half a billion dollars, depleting funds set aside for forest restoration and fuels reduction, according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
“This way we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said. “The NIFC will spend the money incredibly wisely to sustain the ecosystem.”
Crapo said large wildfires impact agency budgets.
“This provides a smoother level of funding so we can more effectively manage the forests and grasslands,” he said. “All of you are aware of the many collaborative efforts, working together with all stakeholder groups, to better manage the wonderful places we love.”
He said spending money on disaster fires leaves less money for landscape management and resource development.
“I think we have a solution that is a win, win, win,” Crapo said.
Wyden said the idea was discussed during preparation of the Ryan-Murray budget in December, the compromise reached between House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“The reason this is so important is fires are often bigger, often hotter and last longer. It is time for a fresh approach to fighting wildfire,” he said. “This is a national shift in fighting wildfire, but it began right here in this set of buildings last year.”
Between 2004 and 2013, both the Department of Interior’s and the Forest Service’s wildfire costs exceeded the 10-year average seven times. When those funds run out, agencies are forced to use funds allocated for other purposes. While Congress often backfills those accounts, work on other projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction intended to mitigate the damage caused by future fires, can be thrown off schedule.
Last year’s Yosemite Rim fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres, cost $100 million to fight. In 2012, the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters consumed almost 27,000 acres in Deschutes National Forest and cost $18 million to fight.
Dry conditions across the Southwest mean that fire season has already started in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona, said Ed Delgado, the fire weather program manager at NIFC. Over the next three or four months, the dry conditions will creep north into Southern Oregon, he said.
WesCom News Service reporter Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.