Oregon Lawmakers Spearhead Bipartisan Wildfire Offensive

Republicans and Democrats from throughout Oregon and neighboring states are pursuing legislation that would better prepare the area for future wildfire seasons.

Posted: Mar. 22, 2018 11:50 AM
Updated: Mar. 23, 2018 9:24 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fighting wildfires should be about preparing for the future, not drawing from the past, according to a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers hailing from Oregon and Idaho. That’s why they have fought to add funds for wildland firefighting into the newest government funding proposal in Washington, D.C.

Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and Congressmen Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) claim that past methods for funding wildland firefighting result in the pillaging of other vital government programs, sometimes only loosely related.

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to finding a permanent solution to funding wildfire that restores balance between fire suppression and forest management activities. Wildfires are currently funded entirely within the Forest Service budget, based on a 10-year rolling average.  Over the last few years, wildfire suppression has become more costly and this method of funding has resulted in inadequate funding for wildfire suppression.  When funding is not enough, the Forest Service is forced to shift funds from other critical natural resource management programs to cover the cost of wildfire suppression.  The Administration and Congress supported legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded."

“It has been atrocious public policy to rob fire prevention funds to fight fires. This bill fixes that by treating bad fire years as the natural disasters they are, and funding the fight from a disaster fund,” said Merkley.

According to a statement from the coalition released Thursday, federal agencies currently base their wildland fire suppression budgets on the average cost of the prior 10 years.

Other agencies responding to natural disasters can draw from an emergency fund—but wildfires are treated differently. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have to live within the budgets granted them—or divert the money from elsewhere should they go over-budget.

“This long-overdue provision will enable agencies to fight forest fires like the disasters they truly are and stop the debilitating practice of fire borrowing,” said Crapo

The new funding for wildland firefighting is currently included in an “omnibus bill” to fund the U.S. government, which has now passed the House and will go before the Senate just prior to the expiration of government funding on March 23.

Meanwhile, Congressman Greg Walden (R-Hood River) announced Wednesday that he had won a victory in forest management reform, also included in the omnibus bill.

“This legislation marks significant progress to improve forest health, reform the way we pay to fight wildfires, and provide two years of Secure Rural Schools funding for essential county services,” said Walden. “This builds off of the reforms included in the landmark Healthy Forests Restoration Act.”

The Healthy Forests Initiative was initially proposed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, and portions of it became law in 2003. The legislation was intended to aid government agencies in removing hazardous fuels from U.S. forests and monitoring them for wildfire risk.

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