Senators from NW Ask For Wildfire Suppression Money

By Tom Bacon

A couple of western state senators of opposing parties aim to prime the financial pump before next summer's outbreak of costly wildfires. Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho are pushing a joint bill to reform federal wildfire policy after last summer's disastrous budget crunch which made federal agencies scramble to divert money from other programs.

Their bill aims to lock in more money for fire prevention, largely by removing hazardous fuel from national forests, and to treat wildfires as natural disasters. The federal system currently is a mishmash of budgetary items spread across two massive agencies and overseen by  no one.

Money for wildfire suppression last summer was also slashed by the automatic sequester cuts that took $115 million away, and by dilution of a wildfire reserve fund created four years ago. At the same time, wildfire fighting costs have spiked from about $1-billion dollars in the 1990s to an average of more than $3-billion dollars a year since 2002.

Of the proposed bill, Wyden said "this is about as common-sense as it gets... Congress must fund the biggest catastrophic wildfires like the natural disasters they are, and put money back into prevention." Crapo added "this approach will give firefighters and managers more tools for effective fire management."

Under the proposal, when spending for fire suppression rises above 70 percent of the 10-year average, the money would be shifted away from the Forest Service and Interior Department to a new disaster funding account. The senators believe it would free up nearly half a billion dollars to pay for fire prevention and hazardous fuel reduction work.
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