Statesman Journal: Treat record-breaking wildfires by changing budget

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Salem, September 5, 2015 | comments

Oregon is fighting our worst fire season in recent memory. To date, over 333,000 acres have burned in our state and over 8 million acres total in the West.

More than 1,000 residents have been forced to evacuate from their homes and rangeland is burning up, threatening cattle and ranchers' livelihoods.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire alone has burned more than 115 square miles, an area bigger than Eugene, Salem and Medford combined.

To date, nearly 2,600 firefighters have been deployed to beat back the fires and protect communities across Oregon. Oregon National Guard troops have been called in to help with firefighting for the first time in more than a decade. Resources are so exhausted, firefighters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand have been brought in.

Carbon-heavy smoke from these fires has not only blanketed the Pacific Northwest, but also has spread east into the Rocky Mountain region to states like Montana.

These facts just begin to capture the magnitude of the devastation.

But with fire season not close to over this year, here is one more troubling number: The U.S. Forest Service is spending $150 million every week to fight fires – and well over $200 million last week – nearly emptying the nation's firefighting budgets. And wildfires will not magically go away next year.

Proven prevention techniques like hazardous fuels reduction – thinning out underbrush and small trees that quickly kindle – make it easier for firefighters to stop a fire in its tracks. They are crucial to making it less likely next year's fire season is as devastating as this year's.

But Oregon won't be able to afford those prevention techniques because of the flawed way America pays for fighting wildfires. When the firefighting budget runs out – as it already has this year – the Forest Service has no choice but to siphon money from prevention funds.

Congress must end this dangerous budgeting system. We've co-authored the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to stop the dysfunctional cycle of underfunding fire suppression that forces federal agencies to steal from fire prevention just to put out fires.

Our bill will end this nonsensical "fire borrowing" by funding the largest wildfires from a similar disaster account that is already used to fund other natural disasters. The Interior Department and the Forest Service estimate the largest 1 percent of fires consume about 30 percent of firefighting budgets.

Treating catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters – such as hurricanes and tornadoes – means agencies can adequately prepare for the future without jeopardizing their annual funding for all the other work the agency must do to manage our nation's forests.

The bill would move any fire suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average to a disaster funding account that is separate from Forest Service and Interior budgets. This change would free up funds the Forest Service needs to manage forests to decrease the risk of future fires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act now has 16 bipartisan supporters in the Senate and 124 in the House. More than 250 organizations, ranging from the National Rifle Association to the Nature Conservancy, have written in to share their support. The president has included this funding fix in his annual budget the last two years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that fire seasons now last 78 days longer than they did 40 years ago. With fire seasons starting earlier and getting more dangerous, we can't afford to risk that next year's fire season simply won't be as bad.

That's why when Congress resumes its legislative work this month, we are putting this at the top of the list of must-pass bills.

These massive wildfires are as devastating as the hurricanes and tornadoes seen in other parts of the country and they should be dealt with the same way. For too long, westerners have had to watch huge swaths of their states burn knowing that, even when those flames are extinguished, they are likely to face the same challenges the next year.

As this year's fire season has shown all too starkly, it's long past time to fix how we fund the fight against wildfires.

Ron Wyden of Portland is Oregon's senior senator. Contact his office at (503) 589-4555 or wyden.senate.gov/contact. Kurt Schrader of Canby represents Oregon's 5th Congressional District. Contact his office at (503) 588-9100 orschrader.house.gov/contact.

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