BOISE — Members of the Idaho and Oregon congressional delegations briefed reporters March 17 on a bill that would dramatically change how the federal government funds its wildfire suppression efforts.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which has been introduced in the Senate and House, would fund the cost of fighting the biggest wildfires the same way as the costs of other natural disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes are funded.
The plan would also allow more money to be spent on prevention efforts designed to reduce the number of “mega” wildfires that have plagued the Western U.S. in recent years.
The bipartisan plan was crafted by Democrat and Republican members of the Idaho and Oregon congressional delegations and is included in President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 budget.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told reporters that the federal government’s 2013 fire suppression costs exceeded the 10-year average by $500 million.
As happens too often, she said, federal officials had to raid other budgets that fund fire prevention efforts to come up with the extra money.
“That means we have to claw into the funds that were otherwise set aside for hazardous fuels removal, post-fire remediation and other (efforts to cover) the fire suppression (costs),” Jewell said.
When hazardous fuels can’t be removed and prescribed burns can’t be used to prepare ecosystems for a more natural fire cycle, “then we end up with a worse suppression situation and it spirals down and we have to borrow more money and so on,” she added.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called that borrowing of funds “fire robbery.”
“The bureaucracy borrows from the prevention fund in order to fight the fires and of course the problem gets worse,” he said. “The problem has been that it really isn’t borrowing; it’s fire robbery because the prevention fund often doesn’t seem to get paid back and the problem gets worse and worse.”
The bill allows federal firefighting agencies to use money from the existing federal natural disaster fund to cover any fire suppression costs that exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average.
This would reduce the amount of money being taken from other funds meant to finance fire prevention efforts.
Jewell said 1 percent of the most extreme fires account for 30 percent of the federal government’s wildfire suppression costs.
“It is those we are talking about taking (out of) the normal suppression budget,” she said.
Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, said the new policy will allow the federal government to more effectively manage forests and grasslands and help prevent fires in the first place.
“If we can more effectively manage those lands, we will have fewer fires that become disasters,” he said.
“This is a national shift in fighting wildfires,” Wyden said. “We think that it’s going to end up producing savings for the long term because it will ensure … that the focus is on prevention.”