Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho introduced a bipartisan bill Thursday that would overhaul federal wildfire policy by increasing funding for fire prevention and treat the largest wildfires as natural disasters.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, sponsored by Sen. Michael Bennet and Sen. Cory Gardner, would allow the U.S. Forest Service to access the pre-existing disaster fund used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to adequately respond to wildfires.
While responses to other natural disasters can draw money from an emergency fund, wildfire suppression budgets are based on their average costs for the past 10 years, which often results in underfunding. The senators described this as an “outdated” tradition.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior as a result are often forced to “borrow” money budgeted to other programs to make up for insufficient funding.
This legislation would make any fire-suppression spending above 70 percent of the 10-year average for fire suppression eligible to be funded under a separate disaster account.
“Colorado and other Western states continue to face year after year of catastrophic wildfires that threaten people and property and are busting our budgets. We need to restructure the way we pay for fighting and mitigating wildfires,” Bennet said in a statement. “This bill will ensure that these disasters receive adequate funding to end the damaging practice of ‘fire borrowing’ that results in taking critical funding away from fire prevention efforts.”
Gardner also expressed his support in a statement.
“Major wildfires are natural disasters in every place but the federal budget,” Gardner said. “But because the law doesn’t allow funding for these events to be properly budgeted, the Forest Service routinely has to pull money from other important priorities, including fire prevention and forest management, in order to fight these major wildfires. It’s time for that counterproductive cycle to end, and this bill does it.”
U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department estimates found that 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.
It was also estimated that proper budgeting could free up $412 million in discretionary funds for fire-prevention programs.
The legislation’s other co-sponsors include Sens. James Risch, R-Idaho; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Steve Daines, R-Mont.; and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
Michael Cipriano is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.