WASHINGTON - (Update: Adding Merkley comments)
All five of Oregon's House members -- Reps. Peter DeFazio , Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Greg Walden (OR-02), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), and Kurt Schrader (OR-05) -- sent a letter to House leaders Tuesday requesting that emergency funding for wildland fire suppression be included in the Hurricane Harvey emergency supplemental appropriations bill the House will take up later this week.
The Forest Service is expected to exhaust its funding for wildfire suppression within days. Dangerous wildfires have forced thousands of Oregonians to evacuate their homes and businesses and degraded air quality has caused serious health issues across Oregon.
Currently, Oregon’s Chetco Bar fire has consumed more than 167,000 acres. It is estimated that the Chetco fire will not be contained until the end of October. To make matters worse, there are 23 other Oregon fires, including the Eagle Creek fire now threatening the Portland metro area and Columbia River Gorge communities. In total, these fires have burned over 340,000 acres to date.
The lawmakers write, "Thousands of people have been evacuated, and homes and businesses have been destroyed. It is likely the USFS will exhaust all funding for wildfire suppression within days. Once that occurs, the agency is forced to borrow from other USFS accounts to pay for wildland fire suppression. Often the accounts that are depleted fund the very activities that help reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, creating a vicious cycle.”
Meanwhile, after the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and California declared states of emergency from wildfires ripping across the West, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Tuesday pushed the Trump administration to include wildfire funding fix in any request to Congress for disaster aid.
Wyden has repeatedly pushed Congress to pass a wildfire fix and reform the way the federal government fights wildfires. Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, first introduced in 2013 the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. A similar wildfire funding fix was included in July in legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking Committee to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program.
Both approaches would end the cycle of underfunding fire suppression that currently forces federal agencies to steal from fire prevention to fight fires. They would also end “fire borrowing” by funding the largest wildfires from a similar disaster account used to fund other natural disasters.
“Right now, hundreds of thousands of acres are burning across Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and Utah. More than 7.65 million acres of forests have burned this year alone,” Wyden wrote in a letter to Trump.
“As the long recovery begins in Houston and the surrounding areas, I ask that you also include a wildfire funding fix in any disaster aid request you send to Congress,” Wyden wrote.“It is long past time to address the ongoing, devastating natural disaster of wildfires raging across western states.”
In an August letter to the leaders of the Senate Banking Committee, Wyden, along with Sens. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., urged the Senate to work to pass a wildfire funding fix similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking Committee to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the risk of flooding after wildfires is “significantly higher” for up to five years after a wildfire. Wildfires increase the risk of floods and flash flooding by wiping out trees, shrubs and other plants that allow soil to absorb rainfall and snowmelt.
Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also reacted Wednesday to the fires burning across Oregon, and announced plans to push to include emergency funding for wildfires in the disaster bill that is expected to move through Congress this month:
“All across our state we are experiencing devastating wildfires. I’m praying for the affected communities, and for the brave men and women who are out there on the front lines fighting these fires.
“I thank Gov. Kate Brown and the long list of local officials, firefighters and volunteers — from the south Oregon Coast to the Columbia River Gorge — who are working on comprehensive emergency responses. I know there is a lot of fear and uncertainty right now, and that their mobilization has provided some reassurance for Oregonians.
“In Washington, D.C., I’m doing everything I can to make sure Oregon communities have the resources and manpower they need to fight these fires now, and to recover after they’re extinguished. There’s a disaster bill coming to the Senate, and I’ll do everything I can to ensure that the disaster hitting Oregon is addressed in that legislation. We need to make sure there are adequate resources to fight the fires today, and to help communities recover tomorrow.
“The fires burning today reinforce how important it is to get a long-term fix that would fund fighting huge wildfires the way that we fund other natural disasters, instead of raiding next year’s fire prevention. There shouldn’t be a ‘wrong kind’ of disaster. When our communities are hit hard, we should help them respond and recover.
“Many of us are frustrated with current forest management practices. I will continue working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers to find collaborative solutions and funding to return our forests to health.
“And as the fire season gets longer, we also need to work with the Forest Service to figure out how to ensure we have crews in place to fight fires through the entire season — not just the summer months. Right now, a big challenge is that many of our seasonal firefighters go back to school at the end of August. That puts a huge crunch on the crews that are remaining. Unfortunately, as we’re seeing that now, the new, longer fire season can be just as intense in the early fall as in July and August.
“This is a scary time for Oregon. Our air is choked with wildfire smoke; our friends and neighbors are on the front lines fighting fires; our communities are being threatened. I will do everything I can to support Oregonians and make our forests more resilient in the future.”