Letters from the West

Senate and House move toward approving disaster funding for fires

The Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday approved provisions to pay for the most extreme wildfires through federal disaster funding.

The funding method is similar to legislation introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, because of concerns firefighting budgets have taken funding from other programs, including those that restore habitat and maintain jobs in national forests.

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. Rep. Mike Simpson has co-sponsored similar legislation in the House and Idaho Sen. Jim Risch and Rep. Raul Labrador also have supported the legislation that is backed by the Obama Administration.

Currently, 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.

The House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to fully fund wildland fire accounts at the 10-year average — providing $3.6 billion for both Forest Service and DOI firefighting accounts, a $52 million increase over FY15, and a $75 million increase for hazardous fuels management.

“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 reports that as of Friday, 12 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.