September 26, 2017

Western Senators, Secretary of Agriculture Agree: Wildfire Funding Must be Fixed Now

VIDEO: Wyden, Crapo, Risch, Bennet Attend Fire Briefing at USDA, Forest Service on Record Fire Spending Year

Washington, D.C. – A bipartisan group of western senators pushing for their legislation to fix “fire borrowing” heard strong evidence from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and fire experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service that Congress should pass their bill to end fire borrowing.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Jim Risch, R-Idaho, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and five other bipartisan senators, would treat wildfires as natural disasters and stop the erosion of the Forest Service’s budget by reforming the way the federal government funds wildfires. The legislation would end “fire borrowing,” which has depleted funds intended for forest restoration, habitat programs, trail maintenance and fire prevention programs, such as thinning. More than 250 private and public organizations have supported the legislation. 

Wyden, Crapo, Risch and Bennet attended a Washington, D.C. briefing today where the Forest Service announced all-time record spending of more than $2 billion to pay to fight this year’s wildfires, which have destroyed significant parts of the West. Once again, the senators noted, federal agencies have had to empty non-fire accounts of more than a half-billion dollars to pay for wildfires. More than 8.5 million acres have burned across the country this year – a 47 percent increase from the 10-year average of 5.8 million acres. The emergency preparedness levels for fire are at the highest point in five years.

“My colleagues and I heard the message loud and clear today from Sec. Perdue: the federal government cannot keep conducting ‘business as usual’ when it comes to fire funding,” Wyden said. “This year’s devastating fires underscore the urgency of this issue. Fixing this broken fire budgeting system is a bipartisan idea and has been from the start. We’re calling on Congress to pass our bipartisan bill to end fire borrowing, stop the Forest Service from becoming the ‘Fire Service’ and start treating wildfires like the natural disasters they are.”

“We already know in the West about the devastation of these wildfires on our habitat, our lungs, and on our heritage,” Crapo said.  “Hopefully, now our colleagues in the Senate will see the magnitude and immediacy of this problem and end this ‘fire borrowing’ so that we can focus on fire prevention and focus on saving lives, habitat and our favorite public lands places for the future.”

“Wildfires are a catastrophic event just like an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado. But there is one very big difference – wildfires are at least partially preventable and almost fully manageable,” Risch said. “If we set aside funds for wildfire prevention ahead of time, we can actually tamper down the destruction. This is what our legislation seeks to accomplish.”

“Today’s briefing on the historical cost of this year’s wildfire season emphasized the importance of changing the way we pay for fighting catastrophic fires,” Bennet said. “It was good to hear from Secretary Perdue about the immediate need to end the penny wise, pound foolish practice of fire borrowing, ensuring the Forest Service can do its job to mitigate future fires. The opportunity to sit down with my colleagues and the Secretary to discuss the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 is a testament to the bipartisan interest in passing this critical legislation.”

The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would fund wildfires as natural disasters and protect the agencies’ fire prevention budgets by putting a freeze on the rising budget costs of the 10-year average. It would end “fire borrowing” by allowing the agencies to fund any fire suppression spending needed above the frozen average through disaster funding just like other agencies can access disaster funding for tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. It would also make room for wildfires in the disaster budget so other natural disasters would not have to “compete” for disaster funds.

Making disaster funding available after the appropriated fire suppression funding is spent would allow the Forest Service to use its fire prevention funding for its intended purpose – completing hazardous fuels reduction projects that have been shown to help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo., also cosponsored the bill.

Watch video from today’s briefing here.

Find bill text for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act here.