Oregon senators support change to firefighting funds

Legislation would take spendiest firefighting costs out of FEMA’s budget

By Andrew Clevenger / The Bulletin / @andclev

Published Mar 18, 2014 at 12:01AM

Wildfire Disaster Funding Act

What it does: Would treat the largest 1 percent of wildfires as natural disasters, and have the firefighting costs come out of FEMA’s budget, leaving other funding for Forest Service and Department of Interior projects untouched.

What’s next: Referred to Senate Budget Committee. Companion legislation in the House has been referred to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy, and Forestry.

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of members of Congress at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise pledged Monday to work on behalf of legislation that would change the funding structure for fighting wildfires.

Under legislation currently under consideration in the House of Representatives and the Senate, the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which consume 30 percent of the federal firefighting budget, would be treated as natural disasters like tornadoes or hurricanes, and response would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This approach has the support of the Obama administration, which included the change in funding in its 2015 budget request.

Last year was not a terrible fire year, but typical of a “new normal,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on a conference call with reporters after meeting with fire officials, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and members of the Oregon and Idaho congressional delegations.

Even so, in 2013 the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department exceeded their fire budgets by about $500 million, she said.

“That means we have to claw into the funds that were otherwise set aside for hazardous fuel removal, our post-fire remediation, and other parts of the budget in order to take care of the fire suppression. When we can’t remove hazardous fuels, and when we can’t do prescribed burns to help prepare these ecosystems for a more natural cycle of fire, then we end up with a worse suppression situation, and it spirals down,” Jewell said.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said the legislation he co-introduced in December with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, came out of a meeting last August at the NIFC. Companion legislation, introduced last month by Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, is making its way through the House of Representatives.

“We’re all, on a bipartisan basis, committed to making sure that that prevention fund is the front and center of our fire policy,” Wyden said, referring to Monday’s gathering, which included Crapo, Sens. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho.

“We think that it is going to end up producing savings for the long term because it will ensure … that the focus is on prevention,” Wyden said.

The Office of Management and Budget has said the new approach would be revenue neutral, and not create any additional costs for taxpayers.

Crapo said the new approach is vital to helping federal agencies manage the land more efficiently and to the ongoing efforts by local forest collaborative groups to provide input on how to best manage public lands.

“As we proceed with these collaborative efforts, it requires — as agreements are reached — for agencies who manage a lot of the lands at stake to have resources to engage in the management activities the collaborative efforts call for,” Crapo said. “If we are in the process of robbing the funds of the Forest Service and the BLM in order to push back on existing disaster fires, then we have fewer funds for the landscape management and environmental protections and the resource development that would be allowed by these proper collaborations.”

Crapo called the natural disaster model of funding the most extreme fires as a “win-win-win solution,” and said he appreciated President Obama’s inclusion of the new funding structure in his 2015 budget request.

In recent years, fire seasons have grown longer by two months, Merkley said. The average fire now is five times as big as the average fire in 1970, he said.

It is now up to Congress to enact the fire funding legislation into law, he said.

Wyden said the idea was discussed during preparation of the Ryan-Murray budget in December, the compromise reached between House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

While the idea wasn’t fleshed out enough at that time to include in that budget, legislators should work on a bipartisan basis to advance the legislation, Wyden said. Ryan and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are key members whose support they would seek, he said.

Under the current wildfire suppression plan, agencies project their annual fire costs by taking the average of the previous 10 years.

Between 2004 and 2013, both the Department of Interior’s and the Forest Service’s wildfire costs exceeded the 10-year average seven times. When those funds run out, agencies are forced to use funds allocated for other purposes. While Congress often backfills those accounts, work on other projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction intended to mitigate the damage caused by future fires, can be thrown off schedule.

Last year’s Yosemite Rim fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres, cost $100 million to fight. In 2012, the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters consumed almost 27,000 acres in Deschutes National Forest and cost $18 million to fight.

Dry conditions across the southwest mean that fire season has already started in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona, said Ed Delgado, the fire weather program manager at NIFC. Over the next three or four months, the dry conditions will creep north into Southern Oregon, he said.

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