Emergency fire funds not in GOP border plan

Walden: Agencies have $700 million in wildfire accounts

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

WASHINGTON — The $659 million border stabilization bill introduced Tuesday by House Republicans does not include emergency funding to fight wildfires, unlike previous proposals from President Obama and Senate Democrats.

The GOP plan, unveiled by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., provides $405 million for border security and law enforcement activities within the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department. It also allocates $197 million to the Department of Health and Human Services to provide humanitarian assistance such as food and shelter to the unaccompanied children already in U.S. custody. Thousands of minors have been streaming north without their parents, many to escape political unrest and violence in their own countries.

Obama’s $3.7 billion proposal included $600 million in emergency wildfire funding, while the $3.57 billion plan put forward last week by Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., included $615 million to help fight the fires ravaging the Pacific Northwest.

As of Tuesday, large fires were burning in seven Western states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Several were in Oregon.

Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, told The Bulletin on Tuesday that he supports the House plan, calling it “a very important step forward in trying to regain control of our borders to the south.”

Walden said Rogers assured him the U.S. Forest Service and the other federal land-management agencies charged with suppressing wildfires still have about $700 million left in their firefighting budgets.

“We also know that they’re spending it rapidly because of the intensity of this fire season,” Walden said.

Rogers promised to keep an eye on the firefighting accounts, Walden said. The border bill provides funding only through the end of September, by which time Congress will have returned from its August recess.

Walden reiterated the need to reform how wildfire suppression is paid for, an idea that enjoys significant bipartisan support from lawmakers across the West. Legislation that would treat the very biggest fires as natural disasters, to be dealt with by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is pending in both the House and Senate. The 1 percent of largest fires consume 30 percent of wildfire funds, which frequently run out before the end of fire season.

When this happens, the Forest Service is forced to raid its other accounts, a practice known as “fire-borrowing.” In many cases, other projects, including those that reduce the brush and undergrowth that feed large fires, are postponed or canceled because the funding has been spent on putting out fire.

Walden said he has spoken with Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, about getting a floor vote for the wildfire funding bill. Although a vote before the August recess is highly unlikely, the House could take up the matter after lawmakers return to Washington in September, he said.

Through his spokesman, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland, said he did not support the House bill. The bill is a “missed opportunity” that does nothing to address the underlying issues that need to be resolved for us to have sensible immigration policy, Patrick Malone, a Blumenauer spokesman, added.

“Congress should be voting to help fight these raging fires in Oregon or getting to work on developing a sustainable plan for funding our transportation system, not passing another bad environmental bill and going home,” Malone wrote in an email, referring to a bill passed Tuesday that would require federal agencies to publish the scientific basis for listing animals as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, said he had not had a chance to review the GOP border plan. Paul Gage, spokesman for Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, said the congressman was still reviewing the proposal but was disappointed wildfire funding was not addressed.

Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., continues to support changing the way the government pays for fighting wildfires, said Sam Offerdahl, his spokeswoman. This could happen through the stand-alone legislation Wyden co-authored with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, or through either the Obama or Mikulski proposals, which include language based on the Wyden-Crapo bill that would treat the biggest wildfires as natural disasters.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., a co-sponsor of the Wyden-Crapo legislation, said it is unacceptable for Congress to pass an emergency spending bill that doesn’t include funding to fight and prevent wildfires.

“We need to stop the vicious cycle of robbing forest management and fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning,” Merkley said in a statement. “If we don’t pass emergency funding for firefighting now, we’ll cannibalize funding for forest management and fire prevention programs, and our fire seasons will only continue to get worse. With fires burning daily in Oregon and across the West, this is an issue that demands equal urgency to anything else Congress considers for emergency funding this week.”

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com