WASHINGTON - Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., applauded the news Monday that President Obama will endorse their plan to reform federal wildfire policy by funding major wildfires the same way as other natural disasters, while freeing up funding to prevent future fires.
"The largest wildfires are natural disasters, no different from tornadoes or earthquakes," Wyden said. "For too long, Oregon forests have suffered from a failure to invest in fire prevention work that can create healthier stands and protect rural communities from catastrophic infernos. This plan finally puts federal policy on the right track."
"We've been trapped in a vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning," said Merkley. "Today's announcement is a big step in breaking that cycle and ensuring we have the resources both to prevent wildfires and to fight them when they occur."
Last year, in Oregon alone, 2,848 fires burned more than 350,000 acres across the state. This year, fires broke out in Western Oregon more than a month ago, and projected drought threatens another major wildfire season.
President Obama announced on Monday that he plans to incorporate a bill (S. 1875) by Wyden, Merkley, Sens. Mike Crapo and James Risch, both R-Idaho, as part of his 2015 budget proposal. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., are sponsoring the House companion bill.
Currently, agencies base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years. That approach has underestimated the actual costs in eight of the past 10 years, and forced the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to take money from other important programs to make up the difference.
This measure treats the largest fires – roughly 1 percent of annual fires – as natural disasters, and funds firefighting efforts from the same disaster account that funds hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts.
The Forest Service estimates 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.
Removing those "megafires" from the regular budget could free up to $412 million for land management agencies to fund fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.
Meanwhile, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) announced Monday he has co-sponsored a bill to address the same, perennial wildfire budget issues.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 3992) aims to end the current practice of "fire borrowing," using funds from fire prevention accounts in order to pay for wildfire suppression when costs exceed an agency's wildfire budget.
"Federal forest policy is broken, and so is the way we budget for major wildfires. Year after year, federal agencies are forced to take money from forest management and fire prevention programs to pay to fight wildfires. That doesn't make sense for our forests or for the taxpayers. This broken cycle needs to end, which is why I've co-sponsored this common-sense bill," Walden said.
"I'm pleased that fixing our broken fire funding system has bipartisan support in the House, the Senate, and from the White House. Fixing this flawed funding method is a good first step, but we also need to fix federal forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfire, improve forest health and create jobs. Last September, the House passed a bipartisan bill to do just that, and I urge the Senate to rapidly pass this plan," Walden continued.
Federal wildfire suppression expenditures surpassed budgeted amounts eight times over the past ten years. When this happens, agencies are forced to take funds from accounts used to pay for active forest management activities, such as hazardous fuels reduction projects.
And because of a lack of active forest management, wildfire suppression costs are rising. Two decades ago, the Forest Service devoted 13 percent of its budget to wildland fire management. In 2013, this took up 41 percent of the budget.
H.R. 3992 would fund routine firefighting through the normal budget process. Catastrophic wildfires, though, would be funded through national disaster programs used to pay for other disasters like hurricanes and floods. These catastrophic fires represent about 1 percent of annual fires but make up over 30 percent of the costs.
The proposal has support on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate, and the President announced today that he would incorporate the plan into his 2015 budget proposal.