Senate Bill Could Help End Wildfire “Cycle of Disaster”

Over the course of last year’s wildfire season, 1.3 million acres were destroyed, including nearly 869,000 acres in Oregon. The cost of fighting 2014’s wildfires was approximately $460 million. In 2015, the Pacific Northwest is poised for another harsh fire season, with meteorologists noting that our uncharacteristically warm and dry winter puts the state at greater than usual wildfire risk.

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The cost of fighting wildfires could be even higher this year. But whence will that money come?

$1 Billion+ in Emergency Fire Suppression Funds

Strangely, the cost of fighting wildfires is driven up by the cost of fighting wildfires. There are two separate budgets, co-funded by the US Forest Service and the US Department of the Interior, for combating wildfires: one that covers the expense of actually putting out said fires, and one that’s used for preventative tactics, like clearing underbrush from forests. When the former is exhausted, funds for the latter are used.

Because fighting a wildfire is so expensive, there’s less money available to prevent wildfires; when fewer resources are available for preventing wildfires, more fires are likely, which will cost more to fight, which will leave even less for prevention.

Last Thursday, the US Senate Committee on Appropriations passed a bill that, if approved by Congress, would provide over $1 billion in emergency fire suppression funds for fiscal year 2016. The new bill provides a financing model that treats wildfires more like the natural disasters they are. The bill will also preserve money more fire prevention by separating the current two-budget system.

The existing system “perpetuates a cycle of disaster,” said Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, who supports the bill. “We don’t […] shut down the clean water system to stop a flood.”

Merkley’s Catch-22

Though he backed the measure, Merkley and several other Democrats voted against it. In a prepared statement, Merkley said he voted no due to “unrelated, extreme anti-environmental policy riders” attached to the bill. The wildfire funding provision seems to be widely supported, however. The final vote on the bill was 16-14.

According to Merkley, the wildfire provision would provide the USFS and USDOI with yearly appropriations equal to the 10-year average cost of fighting wildfires. If those budgets are exceeded, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) will cover the rest of the costs. Any surpluses would be returned to the US Treasury.

Merkley noted that a similar bill, written by Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Idaho Republican Michael Crapo, was the basis for the provision on which the Appropriations Committee voted. Merkley is confident that the appropriations bill passed by Congress will include the provision and the new wildfire funding model.

Photo credit: BLMOregon / Foter / CC BY