WASHINGTON - Following the Senate Appropriations Committee’s release of its draft 2018 Interior and Environment bill, Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden on Tuesday called the bill’s wildfire provisions insufficient to prevent a repeat of 2017’s funding squeeze, reiterating their call for a full, long-term fix to wildfire suppression and prevention funding.
Currently, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies must raid funding from other programs to pay for wildfire suppression during bad wildfire years when suppression costs exceed the budgeted cost for fighting fires. This contributes to a vicious cycle in which fire prevention programs are shortchanged and large, costly wildfires become more common.
Merkley and Wyden have been pushing for the year-end government funding agreement to include a version of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, bipartisan legislation from Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) that would end this cycle by treating wildfires similar to other natural disasters.
The bill would allow the Forest Service to tap into disaster funding to pay to put out fires once the agency exceeds its fire suppression budget for the year. It would also put a freeze on the rising costs of the Forest Service’s fire suppression budget, protecting the funding that goes to the agency’s non-fire programs.
“This past year was a wakeup call. It would be incredibly irresponsible to go another season without reforming our broken system of funding wildfire suppression for once and for all,” Merkley said. “While the wildfire funding contained in this bill is certainly important and a good first step, we know from all-too-recent experience that it will be insufficient in a bad fire year. It makes no sense to go into yet another fire season without a full, permanent provision in place to treat megafires like the natural disasters they are.”
“Unfortunately, this legislation is only a half-solution to treating wildfires as the natural disasters they are. Continuing to battle wildfires using a broken funding system leaves our communities stuck in the same backwards cycle to tackle next year’s fire season,” Wyden said. “The bill’s authors deserve credit for taking the threat of growing wildfires seriously, and for agreeing on a partial solution. But to protect western communities against record fire seasons, and once and for all end the vicious cycle of fire borrowing, Congress needs to pass our bipartisan bill. Only a long-term wildfire budget fix will end fire borrowing and stop the Forest Service from becoming the Fire Service.”
The draft appropriations bill funds wildfire suppression at the 10-year average, plus an emergency buffer of $507 million. This is the same funding structure that was in place for 2017, when the emergency buffer ended up being insufficient by hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the costs of an historically bad fire year. As forests and other fire-prone lands become hotter and dryer due to changes in the climate, bad fire years are expected to occur more frequently.
The 2017 fire season was the most expensive on record, with nearly 9 million acres burned, and the cost of fire suppression exceeding $2.9 billion.