Guest column submitted by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)
In the past, warm spring weather touched off the start of the worst wildfires. Now, unfortunately one fire season essentially runs into the next.
Summer is just starting and states already are reporting what the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) calls "large fires." More than a million acres have already burned this year. ( https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm)
It is time to get ahead of the terrible trifecta of high temperatures, drought and massive fuel build-up that sparks bigger, hotter fires that cost more and burn longer. These conditions are worsened by an unsustainable funding structure making it harder to carry out forest health projects that improve forest conditions.
Wide agreement exists that the dangerous cycle of borrowing funds from fire prevention for fire suppression must end. Together, we have been fighting for a bipartisan congressional budget fix that would provide enough funding to clear hazardous fuels and manage our forests instead of continuing to neglect them.
Last year, Congress bandaged the problem a bit by passing a bill that funded firefighting at 100 percent of the 10-year average of firefighting costs. But the Forest Service has said those funds would not have even covered the costs of last year's full fire season. This year is predicted to be worse.
That's why we are doing whatever it takes to get to a solution. We have joined with the leaders of the Senate Energy Committee, Senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.,and Jim Risch, R-Idaho,and colleaguesin putting forward a new bipartisan compromise to fix the broken wildfire funding system.
This plan would also fund firefighting at 100 percent of the 10-year average of firefighting costs. But in years with fewer fires when not all the fire budget is used, this plan would siphon funding left over from suppression to fire prevention projects.
For the first time, this compromise would allow local communities to self-identify as fire at-risk, giving rural communities a voice in what prevention work gets accomplished quickly.
This proposal is not an end-all solution, but it is a step in the right direction toward bringing everyone to the table and renewing our years-long call for action on wildfire funding.
Congress must start recognizing and treating wildfires like the natural disasters they are, because it is not just wildfire programs that are threatened by the current unstable funding structure. Forest Service programs in Midwestern, Eastern and Southern states that manage timber sales, stream restoration, trail maintenance and recreation get shortchanged when money is diverted to fighting wildfires.
Over the last few years, we visited fire camps throughout Oregon and Idaho and have spoken about wildfires on the Senate floor. We have raised the issue in committee hearings and introduced a funding fix in bills and amendments. We have worked closely with a bipartisan and bicameral group of colleagues on a compromise. Congress needs to act on a long-term solution to this growing problem.
We will not stop fighting until federal wildfire funding policy reflects the reality that "wildfire season" has changed.
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