WASHINGTON - Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., took to the Senate floor Wednesday to press his colleagues on the urgent need to pass an emergency funding bill that would provide additional money to fight catastrophic wildfires ripping through the West.
Wyden described the conditions in Oregon, where wildfires are currently burning almost 500,000 acres, following visits to the Medford Interagency Fire Center and the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, where he was briefed by agents from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
"Today, there are wildfires that are burning across the West. These are fires that are bigger, hotter, and more damaging, and they act like a wrecking ball, pounding at the rural West," Wyden said. "The legislation that Sen. Crapo and I and others are pursuing would fund the true catastrophic fire events under separate natural disaster programs. We have a chance to make a real difference here."
Last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., announced that her emergency supplemental appropriations bill would include an additional $615 million dedicated to wildfire suppression costs.
The bill also includes language to allow some fire suppression funding to be funded out of a disaster account, based on a bill Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced last year. That bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875), now has 17 bipartisan cosponsors.
In a news release from his office, Wyden said he continues to pursue every possible avenue for a vote on his bill, which creates a long-term solution for wildfire budgets.
The bill would treat the largest fires as natural disasters and fund the costs from the same kind of disaster account that already funds hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The Forest Service estimates that these fires – about 1 percent of fires annually – consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.
In doing so, the bill would also end the practice of "fire borrowing," which occurs when the Forest Service and Interior Department are forced to steal money from other important programs to make up for a lack of funding in fire suppression accounts.
Agency budgets have underestimated the actual costs of wildfire suppression 8 of the past 10 years.
The Obama administration included the Wyden-Crapo proposal in the President's budget request to Congress earlier this year.
Click here for more on Wyden's efforts on wildfires.