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Spending bill that just passed includes long-sought funding fix for fighting wildfires

Timelapse shows raging wildfire burning Oregon's 'crown jewel'

Dramatic timelapse video shows a raging wildfire take hold in the Columbia River Gorge area in Washington state, 52 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The video was shot between 1700 local time on Monday and 0500 local time on Tuesday.
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Dramatic timelapse video shows a raging wildfire take hold in the Columbia River Gorge area in Washington state, 52 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The video was shot between 1700 local time on Monday and 0500 local time on Tuesday.

Firefighters could be fighting fewer wildfires, thanks to the budget that passed Congress late last week and was signed by President Donald Trump.

Efforts to prevent wildfires badly needed more funding, and the Forest Service got that money in the compromise that passed the House on Thursday and the Senate on Friday.

The changes, which come after five years of bickering among Capitol Hill lawmakers and campaigns by Western lawmakers, follows the most expensive year for wildfire fighting in history – costing the U.S. Forest Service almost $3 billion.

Without the new strategies, those on the ground said, wildfires would have kept causing more desolation and costing more lives and money each year.

“This long-overdue provision will enable agencies to fight forest fires like the disasters they truly are and stop the debilitating practice of fire borrowing,” Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo said in a news release. “Unlike fighting other natural disasters, federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often find predictions for wildland firefighting costs far underestimate actual expenditures, necessitating diversions of funds from important tasks like habitat protection and trail maintenance. We must help cash-strapped agencies from being forced to choose between saving lives and keeping our lands publicly accessible.”

Federal agencies have had to base their budget for fighting wildfires on a 10-year average of the cost. That’s become outdated as each year fires have burned hotter and longer, causing more devastation.

More than half the Forest Service’s budget every year now goes to fighting fires, and the cost has been climbing every year.

The new plan budgets for $2 billion per year for 10 years, so the Forest Service will no longer have to tap into prevention money to fight active blazes. Because more prevention money will be available, fewer wildfires should erupt.

“Millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has fought along with Crapo for the budget changes.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he was “thrilled” that the budget bill “provides a solution to fire borrowing.”

“It has been my top legislative priority for years, and by including this ... the Forest Service will be able to complete their maintenance and prevention work without fear of losing those dollars to suppression,” he said.

The fix comes with some political cost to Democrats. The bill provides fewer environmental safeguards on forest management, which can include the removal of certain trees and debris or dead underbrush.

A provision in the budget allows up to 3,000-acre sections of land to be submitted for forest management without comprehensive environmental analysis before approval, which can currently take years depending on the area.

The deal still includes some environment analysis, but the approval process will be truncated, allowing forest management to occur much faster and with less oversight. That’s a concern for environmental groups, which fear the changes in forest management.

Drew McConville, senior managing director of government relations at the Wilderness Society, said it was “unfortunate” that Republican leadership felt the need to push to “gut important safeguards,” but that he was fine with this compromise, explaining other alternatives were much worse.

“Other proposals would have totally short-circuited judicial review,” McConville said, referring to court processes that could stall or terminate forest management projects.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said it was logical to tie forest management to wildfire funding. He compared forest managers to doctors treating their patients, not an environmental hazard. They remove more flammable parts of the forest, such as dead trees or dry underbrush, to avoid blazes that would wipe out the entire forest area.

“It’s not clear-cutting, it’s thinning from below, it’s whatever the best forest management process is to make the forest healthier,” Westerman said. “Because we have too many trees per acre, and the trees get weakened, you get a dry spell, a fire gets out, and then it goes up in an inferno, which is what we saw last year in California and all over the West.”

The Statesman contributed.

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