Robert Ehlert: Hey, Congress, fires are disasters, and they should be treated as such

I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t have the proper empathy for the impact of Western wildfires until they literally got in my face each summer after I moved from Back East to Colorado, and then on to Northern California, before landing here in Idaho.

I began to get the picture when inhaling the fumes of a gigantic Colorado wildfire in 2002, watching eerie, smoky sunsets and dodging bits of still-smoldering ash descending upon Little League practices some 60-70 miles away from the fire’s origin — southwest of Denver in the Pike National Forest. Before it was over, around 140,000 acres and some 600 homes had burned in its path.

When I lived in Iowa and Minnesota there was the possibility of flooding in the spring, twisters and straight-line winds in the summer, and blizzards juxtaposed with ice and subzero temperatures in the winter. Out in Virginia Beach, Va., where I lived for six years, we braced for hurricanes and nor’easters.

The point of view in the Midwest, East Coast and other regions about “natural disasters” would not readily include wildfires because they don’t experience them as we do here in the West. The nationwide perception of a “natural disaster” needs to broaden.

What the West is experiencing again this summer — some 70 wildfires erupting in Idaho, our neighboring states and California — ought to be enough to convince the rest of the country that we have our own natural disasters. Though not all of them are overwhelming or started by storms or other natural causes, the small percentage of those that rise to a catastrophic level produce devastation.

It’s time we get it through our partisan and regionally filtered skulls that we are all in this together and that a disaster is a disaster is a disaster, whether it involves fire, rain, wind or some scary combination.

Last year at this time I watched the Idaho congressional delegation line up for a photo at a wildfire symposium because each member was supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act — it has now morphed into H.R. 167 in Congress, where it languishes curiously in a committee holding pattern.

The bill would allow the government to treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters, which is only fair since agencies responding to hurricanes, floods and twisters have access to emergency funding. It’s time wildfire suppression became eligible, too.

The 98-99 percent of routine wildland firefighting expenses (which eat up 70 percent of resources) would continue to be funded through the normal appropriation processes. But that 1-2 percent of huge fires that gobble up the other 30 percent of the resources would be treated like any other natural disaster and therefore be eligible for the same federal assistance.

This makes sense for the big fires and leaves money for agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to do more firefighting mitigation.

I can come up with theories as to why this common-sense bill has not progressed: tight budgets + politics + gridlock + more politics + ideological arguments that make more fire. It doesn’t make sense to me to play the congressional “offset” accounting game when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. You can’t go looking for pork or bridges to nowhere to cut during an emergency. But what you can do is create a level playing field for disasters. Make paying for them the priority and leave the arguments for offsets to items further down the list.

So what’s it going to take for the rest of the country and Congress to realize what the West already knows?

“The severity of this fire season underscores the importance of passing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act as quickly as possible,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. “ In order to make that happen, the House Budget Committee needs to recognize that wildfires should be treated like every other natural disaster so that they will take up this bill. That means that every Western Republican and Democratic member needs to co-sponsor this bill. And with over 130 co-sponsors, we are already well on our way to that goal.”

Though such bipartisan support in both chambers is evident in Washington and Oregon, California is a curiosity. I would think every one of California’s 53 House members would notice their state is on fire annually, yet I count only about two dozen on board.

I remain optimistic. I’d like to believe the Boulder-White Clouds momentum could come into play for something that is 100 percent pragmatic and 0 percent partisan. Only time will tell.

Robert Ehlert is the Statesman's editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho.