Washington, D.C. Provisions to pay for the most extreme wildfires through federal disaster funding were included in the Fiscal Year 2016 Interior Appropriations Bill, which was passed by a Senate panel today. The funding method is similar to legislation introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who have been concerned that firefighting budgets in recent years have taken funding from other programs, including those that restore habitat and maintain jobs in national forests.
The Wyden-Crapo bill, S. 235, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, would draw from disaster and emergency accounts whenever costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average cost of wildfire suppression, freeing up funds that could be used for wildfire prevention activities in the nation's forests. Year after year, money is borrowed from fire prevention funds in order to pay for wildfire suppression. The Interior Appropriations measure, approved in a markup by the Senate Appropriations Committee, ends fire borrowing and calls for the use of disaster funding when 100 percent of the Forest Service budget is exhausted.
"I'm pleased the Senate Interior funding bill addresses the dangerous cycle of fire borrowing, because fires are getting bigger, hotter and more expensive, and Federal Agencies shouldn't have to go bankrupt in order to fight these devastating infernos," Wyden said. "But solving fire borrowing is only half the battle-Congress must also ensure that adequate funds are available to get out ahead of the problem and prevent wildfires from raging out of control in the first place."
"Firefighters, county officials and property owners alike deserve expedited action now that the fire season is underway," Crapo said. "Not only do we need certainty to protect lives and property, we also need to perform the maintenance, prevention and restoration work that prevents future fires."
Severe drought this year has exacerbated the fire danger, with Douglas and Jefferson counties in Oregon receiving new disaster declarations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In Idaho, Adams, Washington, Payette, Canyon, Owyhee, Elmore, Custer, Blaine, Butte, Cassia and Twin Falls counties have all received primary drought disaster designations.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports, as of today, twelve large fires have burned 35,372 acres in Alaska, Arizona, California and Oregon. Smaller range fires have also been reported in Idaho. NIFC officials say although mid- to late-spring rains have delayed the onset of severe fire activity in much of the Western continental U.S., low moisture over the winter and persistent drought have created conditions for above-normal fire potential in July and August, particularly in parts of California, Idaho and Arizona, and all of Oregon and Washington. To the north, Alaska already this month is experiencing large, severe fires burning in the southern and eastern portions of the state and burning homes and other structures.