published Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Congress studies new way to pay to fight big fires

This Aug.,16, 2013, file photo shows helicopters battling the 64,000 acre Beaver Creek Fire north of Hailey, Idaho.
This Aug.,16, 2013, file photo shows helicopters battling the 64,000 acre Beaver Creek Fire north of Hailey, Idaho.

BOISE, Idaho — A bipartisan effort underway in Congress would change the way the country pays to fight catastrophic wildfires, tapping natural disaster funds instead of money intended for fire prevention, lawmakers from Oregon and Idaho said Monday.

In the past, as fire seasons have progressed, money set aside for forest thinning and other fire prevention efforts has been syphoned to pay for battling the biggest blazes.

"And then, of course, the problem gets worse," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who met with lawmakers to discuss the proposed budget reform.

The legislation introduced in Congress would direct that when firefighting costs reach 70 percent of the 10-year average, firefighting agencies could dip into the government's fund for battling natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon worked together on the idea of fighting the season's biggest fires with natural disaster funds, thus sparing fire prevention and restoration money for that important work.

"Wildfires are being allowed to become disasters, and they should be funded through the disaster fund," Risch said at a news conference at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "If we more effectively manage our lands, fewer fires will become disasters."

Restoration work includes thinning overgrown forests, clearing underbrush and removing trees that have been attacked by insects and are more fire-prone.

Jewell noted that in 2013, the fire suppression budget was exceeded by $500 million, with that money coming from fire restoration and prevention funds. Firefighting costs have exceeded their budget in eight of the past 10 years.

Republican Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson of Idaho have introduced a companion bill in the House.

Some opponents worry the proposal will lead to a budget increase for fighting wildfires.

But the lawmakers said the government already is spending money each year to suppress disastrous wildfires, and this proposal adds no new funds for that. It simply offers a way to preserve fire prevention money, they said.

Experts at the National Interagency Fire Center predicted a busy wildfire season in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona this year, expanding into Northern California and southern Oregon later in the year. All the moisture in the eastern United States this winter should mitigate the fire season there, the center predicted.

Wyden said the budget proposal arose from a meeting at the fire center in August, after agencies ran out of their budgeted funds for firefighting.

"Fires are now often bigger and hotter and last longer," Wyden said, in part because of the frequent "robbery" of fire restoration funds for firefighting efforts. "It's time for a fresh approach."

Jewell said the biggest 1 percent of wildfires each year eat up 30 percent of firefighting funds.

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