Editorial: Making political hay while forests burn

Oregonians, indeed all Westerners, have a right to be furious with Congress these days. As members of the House of Representatives and the Senate continue to propose legislation destined to go nowhere to make political hay, drought-stricken forests and rangelands continue to burn, and the money to fight them continues to dwindle.

The congressional response?

On July 23, the Senate appropriations committee introduced an emergency funding bill that includes $615 million to fight wildfires. Problem is, it also includes some $2.73 billion to deal with the flood of Central American children crossing into the United States, though Senate Democrats know full well that figure will never gain approval in the House.

This week, House members had their turn. House Republicans introduced a $659 million measure to deal with the border crisis but included nothing for firefighters. Should the measure make it through the full House, it stands no chance in the Senate.

As this editorial was being written Wednesday, more than a million acres had burned in Oregon and Washington alone, and fires continued to rage in both states. In fact, there were fires burning in six of the 11 Western states, and forecasters predict abnormally hot and dry weather for at least the next 10 days.

That might be tolerable if two things happen.

Most immediately, the U.S. Forest Service cannot be allowed to run out of money to pay for firefighting this summer. Congress goes on a monthlong holiday at the end of this week, and if the money runs low, agencies will, once again, be forced to rob their other funds — those to improve forest health, for example — to keep fire crews on the job.

In the long run, a bipartisan solution to this problem simply must be found. Declaring large fires natural disasters is part of the answer. But equally important is a serious and adequately financed plan to improve forest health nationwide. So far, there’s been some bipartisan work in each half of Congress, but the results have been so apart that there’s precious little chance that a workable solution will emerge.

That isn’t just unfortunate, it’s close to catastrophic. If members of both houses are not embarrassed, they should be.